Time for a rethink

Is it time to learn to love atomic energy? Yes it is, argues James Lovelock. This Introduction to Bruno Comby’s book Environmentalists For Nuclear Energy was also published in The Independent, 28 August 2004.

I spent my childhood in the English countryside over 70 years ago where we lived a simple life without telephones or electricity. Horses were still a normal source of power and we hardly imagined radio and television. One thing I remember well was how superstitious we all were. Men and women who in other ways were intelligent, fearfully avoided places said to be haunted. They would suffer inconvenience rather than travel on Fridays that were the 13th day of the month.

Their irrational fears fed on ignorance and were quite common. I cannot help thinking that they persist, but now these fears are about the products of science. This is particularly true of nuclear power plants that seem to stir the dread that in the past was felt about a moonlit graveyard thought to be infested with werewolves and vampires.

The fear of nuclear energy is understandable through its association in the mind with the horrors of nuclear warfare, but it is unjustified; nuclear power plants are not bombs. They are, in fact, built solidly enough to withstand even a direct hit by a plane in a terrorist attack, according to industry experts.

What at first was a proper concern for safety has become a near-pathological anxiety. Much of the blame for this goes to the news media, the television and film industries, and fiction writers. All these have used the fear of things nuclear as a reliable prop to sell their wares. They, and the political disinformers who sought to discredit the nuclear industry as potential enemies, have been so successful at frightening the public that it is now impossible in many nations to propose a new nuclear power plant.

No source of power is entirely safe, even windmills are not free of fatal accidents, but compared to nuclear power, the dangers of continuing to burn fossil fuels (oil, gas, coal) as our main energy source are far greater and they threaten not just individuals but civilisation itself. Much of the First World behaves like an addicted smoker: we are so used to burning fossil fuels for our needs that we ignore their long-term risks.

Polluting the air with carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases has no immediate consequences, but continued pollution leads to climate changes whose effects are only apparent when it is almost too late for a cure. Carbon dioxide poisons the environment just as salt can poison us. No harm comes from a modest intake, but a daily diet with too much salt can cause a lethal quantity to accumulate in the body.

Although nothing we do will destroy life on Earth, we could change the environment to a point where civilisation is threatened. Sometime in this or the next century we may see this happen because of climate change and a rise in the level of the sea. If we go on burning fossil fuel at the present rate it is probable that all of the cities of the world now at sea level will be flooded.

Try to imagine the social consequences of hundreds of millions of homeless refugees seeking dry land on which to live. In the turmoil, they may look back and minder how humans could have been so foolish as to bring so much misery upon themselves,, by the thoughtless burning of carbon fuels. They may then reflect regretfully that they could have avoided their miseries by the safe use of nuclear energy.

Nuclear power, although potentially harmful to people, is a negligible danger to the planet. Natural ecosystems can stand levels of continuous radiation that would be intolerable in a city. The land around Chernobyl was evacuated because its high radiation intensity made it unsafe for people, but this radioactive land is now rich in wildlife, much more so than neighbouring areas.

Even scientists seem to forget our planet’s radioactive history When a star ends as a supernova, the nuclear explosive material, which includes uranium and plutonium, together with large amounts ofiron and other burnt-out elements, scatters in space, as does the dust cloud of a hydrogen bomb test.

Perhaps the strangest thing about the Earth is that it formed from lumps of fall-out from a star-sized nuclear bomb. This is why, even today, the Earth’s crust has enough uranium left to reconstitute the original event on a minute scale.

There is no other credible explanation for the great quantity of unstable elements still present. The most primitive and old-fashioned Geiger counter will indicate that we stand on the fall-out of a vast ancient nuclear explosion. Within our bodies, hallo million atoms, rendered unstable in that event, still erupt every minute, releasing a tiny fraction of the energy stored from that fierce fire of long ago.

Life began nearly four billion years ago under conditions of radioactivity far more intense than those that trouble the minds of certain present-day environmentalists. Moreover, the air had neither oxygen nor ozone so that the fierce unfiltered ultra-violet radiation of the sun irradiated the surface of the Earth. We need to keep in mind the thought that these fierce energies flooded the very womb of life.

At least in the short term, alternative sources of energy remain wildly uneconomical. A recent report by the Royal Academy of Engineering showed that the nuclear option was the second cheapest means of generating electricity, at 2.3p per kilowatt hour, after gas at 2.2p (gas prices have since shot up), while wind power costs more than 5p per kWH.

I hope that it is not too late for the world to emulate France and make nuclear power our principal source of energy. At present we have no other viable alternative.

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