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Nuclear or Not? Does Nuclear Power Have a Place in a Sustainable Energy Future? Edited by David Elliott. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. ISBN 978-0-230-50764-7

Possibly the only UK book covering the contemporary debate. “Nuclear or Not?”, however offers divergent views and perspectives on nuclear power. It leaves the reader to assess their validity. The book attempts to bring together a range of views with contributions from authors on both sides of the nuclear debate. The emphasis, however, is on critical approaches as opposed to simple reiterations of positions.

Andy Blowers, opens the book saying that a period of relative peace in the nuclear debate since 1997 has been disrupted “by what some have rather excitedly called a nuclear renaissance”. Nuclear is setting the terms of the debate and yet, looked at in the wider energy context, its role would be marginal at best - the relatively modest carbon savings could instead be saved by greater efficiency or deployment of renewables. Blowers concludes that Nuclear power “…would provide the illusion of a solution to the problems of global warming and energy security ... It is this business-as-usual aspect of nuclear that is its most insidious characteristic. … The danger is that by focusing on nuclear we refrain from recognizing the scale of the challenge we face and shirk our responsibility for dealing with it”.

Jonathan Scurlock sets out an introductory primer to nuclear power in Chapter 1, which is easy to follow and avoids jargon. Chapters 2 and 3 cover the history of nuclear power and opposition to it. Of necessity much of the history is skipped, but this leaves it being a bit London-centric. For example, there is no coverage of the large demonstrations and occupations at Torness which were so influential in the development of the UK anti-nuclear movement. Horace Herring says the NUM opposition to nuclear power is often overlooked, but in Scotland it was the Communist Party’s support which prevented the NUM joining the campaign against Torness until it was too late to prevent the “£2.5 billion mistake”.

Gregg Butler and Grace McGlynn, both ex-BNFL and involved with the stakeholder dialogue, discuss the role of dialogue in building a sustainable energy policy. They say the debate has been dominated by the extremes – those who have a near-religious belief in nuclear power and the Greens who “see total fear and an absence of benefit”. Their appeal seems to be for some sort of middle ground - perhaps it is a campaign for a bit of a nuclear programme.

Paul Allen from the Centre for Alternative Technology calls for joined up thinking in dealing with climate change, peak oil and global poverty. Like Butler and McGlynn he warns against falling into entrenched fundamentalist positions so nothing gets done at all. Allen almost seems to be saying don’t waste time arguing against nuclear power, just get on with planning to use less energy, but then he raises the spectre of terrorist attacks on nuclear facilities. He concludes by saying if a minority of powerful nations continue to favour centralised nuclear and fossil fuel-based technologies, they will need a huge world-wide police force at enormous expense and risk to our civil liberties. Sounds a bit like a description of 2007. But we have “a chance to change everything because everything must be changed”.

Stephen Kidd of the World Nuclear Association sets out where he thinks the industry has gone wrong in the past, and what it will need if it is going make progress. He claims that new reactors will not need public subsidy, but they will need top-level political support. In the following chapter, Dave Elliott examines whether Kidd’s contention that we should have both nuclear and renewables is correct.

Dr Ian Fairlie, who served on the Secretariat of the government’s Committee Examining Radiation Risks of Internal Emitters (CERRIE) argues that, although radiation exposures from the current nuclear industry are relatively small, and might well be lowered by a programme of new build, the uncertainties in dose coefficients considerably exceed these reductions. He concludes that it would be preferable to examine less problematic options for future electricity supplies. He gives a useful summary of the ‘report wars’ in the run-up to the 20th anniversary of Chernobyl, and explains briefly in an easily understandable way the conclusion and implications of the CERRIE report, which “rewards close reading“. Background radiation probably causes around 6,000 deaths each year in the UK, and is probably the main cause of childhood leukemias and miscarriages in women over 40, so comparisons the industry likes to make between background radiation and anthropogenic releases are misleading.

David Lowry has two chapters - one on nuclear waste and one on nuclear security. He deals with the myth that a new nuclear programme would produce only 10% of the amount of waste generated by the current fleet, and sets out the history behind the CoRWM process, laying a useful background to recent statements by CoRWM that in no sense should its final report be read as providing any solution to the long-term management of any wastes arising from a new build programme. His chapter on nuclear’s inherent insecurities will be familiar to anyone who has read the no2nuclearpower briefing on nuclear power and security threats. Lowry concludes that further deployment of nuclear technology would undermine security in the UK and should be avoided.

Mitchell and Woodman of Warwick Business School argue that the economics of nuclear power are so uncertain and the risks of delivering meaningful levels of new reactors so great that it is far less risky and far more rational to develop other non-nuclear options. We need to spend our scarce resources as effectively as possible, and ensure decisions do not impact negatively on other carbon abatement solutions. In other words, we need to make sure new reactors do not damage plans to reduce carbon emissions from the other 97.5% of final energy consumption. The risk of this happening is so great, and the risk that nuclear does not even meet the small contribution to carbon reductions expected is so great, that new build should not even be attempted. Anthony Froggatt, too, looking at the European dimension sketches out why nuclear would damage the EU’s climate and security of supply programme. Jonathan Scurlock also worries that in the UK we will end up with a typically British compromise with perhaps two new reactors built, but this results in a huge waste and diversion of resources.

In his concluding remarks, editor David Elliott calls for continuing debate, open to a wide range of influences as part of a wider process of social engagement. The book is clearly attempting to give both sides a chance to make their case to the reader. But with the pro-nukes only getting three or four of the seventeen chapters, they are rather drowned out, and the book ends up being neither one thing or another. It may have been better to stick mostly to the arguments against and reduce the cost. There are indeed some very useful chapters in the book, but it is doubtful that most of those who need this information will be able to afford to pay the cover price. Get your library to order a copy.


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