Russian gas crisis boost for the nuclear lobby

The gas-dispute between Russia and Ukraine earlier this month has been a gift to the British nuclear industry, and could not have come at a better time for the pro-nuclear forces that are working over-time to secure a new generation of nuclear reactors across Britain.

In early January, Russia restricted the supply of gas to its neighbour Ukraine. The Russian state gas company, Gazprom, suddenly increased the price of gas Ukraine was paying from the heavily subsidized rate of $50 per 1,000 cubic metres to the market rate of some $230 per 1,000 cubic metres . Not surprisingly, Ukraine refused to pay.

The dispute had an immediate knock-on effect, as many European countries receive their gas through the Ukraine. Russia accounts for about one-third of EU gas imports, and one-fifth of the gas used in EU. As Russia punished Ukraine by turning off the tap, other European countries suffered too. Soon Italy, Hungary, France, Germany and at least seven central and eastern European countries were all experiencing problems with supply.

It highlighted just how dependent Europe has become on Russian Gas, especially with declining reserves from the North Sea. Britain, for example, is changing from being an exporter of natural gas into a major importer as its supplies from the North Sea run out. What’s more Britain and Europe’s dependency is set to get worse. According to EU estimates, some two-thirds of energy requirements – and three-quarters of its gas – will be imported by 2020. Most of this will come from Russia.

Much to the relief of Europe’s politicians, Russia soon buckled under intense international pressure and signed a compromise deal with Ukraine. Although the gas is back on, the ramifications of the dispute could be felt in Europe and even globally for generations to come.

Firstly there has been a belated realization that Europe is too dependent on Russia for gas. The EU’s Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs even flagged the prospect of a common energy policy for Europe. “The situation has shown how vulnerable the Union is to shortages of gas supply”, he said. The EU needs “a clearer and more collective and cohesive policy on security of energy supply”, he argues.

Although a common energy policy is seen as unrealistic, it could mean European nations pulling together to assist in developing cleaner, greener energy sources which would be a good thing. But that is the end of the good news. The gas dispute is a massive boost to the European nuclear lobby who are pressing for an unprecedented nuclear building programme.

Until very recently, nuclear power had no future in the Western world as politicians had been reticent to build new nuclear plants. This was for a number of highly important reasons, mainly because it had failed to establish itself as either clean, cheap, safe or even reliable.

No new nuclear power stations have been ordered in the UK for over twenty years. In Europe, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Sweden are committed to closing existing plants. Only one is being built in Western Europe in Finland.

There are continuing fears over the safety of nuclear plants that have not diminished since the Chernobyl disaster (ironically in Ukraine) in 1986. There are concerns over pollution from radiation from nuclear sites such as Sellafield that has discharged radiation to the Irish Sea making it the most radioactive in the world.

The industry had not been able to find a long-term solution to the problems of highly dangerous and radioactive nuclear waste. In the UK, we have over 10,000 tonnes of radioactive waste, a figure set to increase 25-fold when our current nuclear facilities are decommissioned. Moreover, since September 11th 2001, there had been new and real fears that nuclear plants might be subject to a horrific terrorist attack or nuclear material might be stolen to make a “dirty” bomb.

But it has been the unravelling of the economics of nuclear power that has been its undoing. Nuclear proponents once famously promised electricity that was “too cheap to meter,” but the dream became a nightmare as costs spiralled. But production and operating costs of nuclear are comparatively small compared to the costs of decommissioning the power plants and making them safe.

The cost to the UK tax-payer has been estimated to be tens of billions of British pounds. Just last week, the boss of the Dounreay nuclear power station in Scotland admitted it would cost £70 billion to clean up the surrounding sea bed from the plant.

All rational sense would suggest that nuclear power should be consigned to history. But rather than that happening, we now face a nuclear revival for three main reasons. The problem of climate change, predominantly caused by the burning of fossil fuels, has risen up the scientific and political agenda.

Secondly, many experts believe that European countries, such as Britain, are facing an “energy gap”, where we do not have enough energy to fulfil demand as our old nuclear power stations come to the end of their lives, and we try and reduce our use of fossil fuels. Thirdly, because of events such as the Iraq war, Western politicians have become increasingly worried about energy security and finding secure supplies of energy.

In November last year, Tony Blair announced that the government would be looking at these issues in a wide ranging energy review. Privately Blair is said to have become convinced of the need for new nuclear plants, much to the delight of the nuclear industry.

Then the Russian / Ukraine gas dispute happened and it heightened fears over energy security and it was a further gift for the nuclear industry. They argue that we cannot rely on Russia so we must build nuclear power stations at home.

Like a gathering storm, the pro-nuclear lobby has quietly and slowly been gathering political momentum. They now believe their time has come again. They argue that we can solve climate change with nuclear power. They argue that we can solve energy security with nuclear power. The pro-nuclear lobby is gearing itself up for the most important battle it has ever faced to persuade people it is a panacea for their energy problems. If they win the battle we can expect a new generation of nuclear power plants in the UK followed soon by other countries.

This would be a huge folly. Nuclear power is not the answer to climate change. It is not the answer to energy security. These new nuclear power plants will generate thousands of tonnes of waste which we have no strategy to get rid of. It will leave a lethal legacy for our children and their children too.

There is also an intimate link between nuclear power and nuclear weapons. You cannot separate civil nuclear power from military power. Civil nuclear programmes feed into military programmes. So these new power stations are likely to give rise to a new generation of weapons. And in today’s volatile and uncertain world that is the last thing we need, especially if the nuclear technology ends up in the wrong hands – something that only seems a matter of time.

Last week, Greenpeace warned that any new nuclear stations were a ‘catastrophic gift to terrorists’ which “could claim millions of lives.” Greenpeace has compiled a dossier of terrorist risks that includes over 40 cases of potential security breaches at UK nuclear facilities and the fact that detailed plans of UK nuclear sites were found in a car linked to the July 2005 London bombings.

Over the next few months we will witness a public relations campaign by the nuclear lobby that will be as deceitful as the one that led us to believe that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But whereas Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction were found to be non-existent, these new nuclear power stations will be a real threat to all.


Posted By

Jan 18 2006 10:52


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