The launch of the energy review last week was clearly set up to pave the way for the prime minister to put forward a new generation of nuclear plants, reversing the decision the government reached in its energy white paper in 2003. Back then, the conclusion was that the looming energy gap – created as the old nuclear power plants are closed down – should be met by an expansion of renewables, plus much-enhanced energy conservation.
The reasons the government rejected nuclear years ago are as forceful today as they were then. First, nuclear is more expensive. The government’s performance and innovation unit calculated that, by 2020, offshore and onshore wind could generate electricity at 1.5p to 2.5p per kWh and 2p-3p/kWh respectively, but nuclear would be 3p-4p/kWh. Analysts and market advisers have said that the City would probably not invest in new reactors unless the government underwrote loans, provided tax relief to the industry, or imposed a new nuclear levy on all of us.
Yet taxpayers are already saddled with the £70bn cost of decommissioning existing nuclear plants. Given that the nuclear industry has generated the biggest losses of any industry in history, is it sane to reinvest in it further?
The nuclear industry’s answer to all this is that the new, simpler AP1000 reactor would be cheaper. But not a single prototype has yet been built.
Second, nuclear generates colossal amounts of toxic waste. Britain already has 10,000 tonnes of intermediate and high-level waste, and the Department of Trade and Industry has estimated that this inevitably will rise 50-fold to half a million tonnes by 2100, even without more nuclear stations. Is it sensible to generate huge additional heaps of dangerous waste?
As environment minister, I set up the Committee Examining Radiation Risks of Internal Emitters to examine the large amount of evidence that releasing radioactivity may be more dangerous than previously thought. In the 20 years since the Chernobyl disaster, hundreds of studies have shown increased rates of many cancers and diseases, both near Chernobyl and beyond. Within months of the accident, leukaemia in infants increased sharply in several European countries and even in the US. The nuclear industry’s favourite explanation for this is that leukaemia is caused by population mixing. But it would seem that perhaps radioactivity could be a more plausible explanation.
In Britain, the increased incidence of cancer and childhood leukaemia has been associated with discharges from the Sellafield nuclear power plant in Cumbria, and a 2004 report for Welsh television indicated that cancer data from Wales may have been manipulated to cover this up. Meanwhile, the government’s Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment has denied any link between Sellafield and the persistent childhood leukaemia cluster in nearby Seascale.
If these diseases have been caused by radioactivity in the environment, it follows that the risks of some kinds of exposure have hitherto been hugely underestimated.
Britain needs nuclear like a hole in the head.