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Poisoned legacy of nuclear option

Wildfires raging across Russia are spreading towards the highly contaminated forests of the Bryansk region, threatening to release low-dose nuclear radiation resulting from the Chernobyl disaster of almost 25 years ago.

The Russian government claims that only two fires have broken out in Bryansk and that they have been put out. However Greenpeace has published a map that suggests there are, or have been, more than 20 fires in the area.

The impact on health of low-dose nuclear radiation combined with smog generated by the fires, plus the horrific heat, which continues in Russia’s hottest summer since records began, is not easy to predict.

It’s a reminder of the long-term damage caused by the world’s worst nuclear accident, when in 1986 one of four nuclear reactors exploded at Chernobyl, spreading nuclear material right across Europe. Whole areas of Russia and Belarus are still no-go zones and high levels of birth defects and thyroid cancer have been identified.

The original concrete sarcophagus enclosing the exploded reactor is crumbling to dust, and a massive new steel structure is being constructed on site at an estimated cost of $1.4bn. It is hoped it will contain the radiation for 100 years.

At the same time, the ConDem government has published its annual energy strategy review, and whilst nuclear power warrants only a short paragraph, reading between the lines one can see that it is a key part of the coalition’s plans.

Indeed energy secretary Chris Huhne was quick to respond to an accusation in the Financial Times that the government was not pursuing the nuclear option and that “green dogma threatens to saddle it with the wrong energy policies”.

Former nuclear opponent Huhne promised the FT:

I have said clearly – most recently in the annual energy statement – that nuclear power will play an important part in our future energy mix, and that the government will continue with all the facilitating measures such as streamlined planning and the national policy statements.

Moreover, nuclear power will benefit from the framework put in place to encourage low carbon electricity generation, such as the European Union’s emissions trading scheme and our own plans for a carbon price floor to provide greater investor certainty.

Huhne said that the industry would not receive public subsidies but that he was “confident that there will be new nuclear power as planned by 2018.”

What this actually means is that the government is not going to directly subsidise nuclear power, but is pushing to raise the floor for the European Union carbon price, so that new nuclear power stations are potentially profitable, not only in the UK but across Europe.

And with the planned closure of a number of coal-fired power stations, and a predicted shortfall in electricity generation in the UK in coming years, the nuclear option looks even better for shareholders.

This is the same Huhne who wrote in 2007:

Nuclear is a tried, tested and failed technology. New nuclear would be economically foolhardy, environmentally irresponsible and pose long-term security questions that are impossible to address.

If we opt for a new generation of nuclear reactors, future generations may rue the day. We will be encumbering them with high costs and enormous and unknowable liabilities. We will miss a key opportunity to pioneer a green future.


Having entered the coalition, and accepted the logic of the continuation of the profit and growth-driven, privatised, energy industry, all Huhne’s former opposition to nuclear inevitably disappears. In the context of capitalist short-termism, nuclear can successfully masquerade as a low-carbon, “green”, option. Nuclear has certainly fooled a lot of people!

The issue of disposing of toxic nuclear waste will be fudged, and left as a problem for future generations to tackle, just as generations of Byelorussians and Russians continue to live with the poisoned inheritance of Chernobyl.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
12 August 2010

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