Nuclear power is one of the most controversial issues of our time. The energy source fell out of public favor during the past few decades amidst concerns about its safety, waste disposal and security risks. But now, with the recent findings that our planet is warming at an increasingly rapid rate, a number of scientists, government officials, and even environmentalists are calling for renewed support for the emissions-free nuclear power to slow the effects of climate change. Bishop Hugh Montefiore is a longtime environmentalist who was forced to resign from Friends of the Earth in Britain when he decided to go public with his views. He joins host Steve Curwood to discuss why he changed his mind about nuclear power.
CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.
When British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced this summer that Britain must consider building a new generation of nuclear power plants to help slow down climate change, he received a lot of criticism from many environmental activists. Many environmental groups have long argued that problems with radioactive waste, the potential of nuclear bomb making and dangers of accidents, such as the one at Chernobyl, make nuclear power a bad bargain for society.
But increasingly, politicians including Mr. Blair, as well as the energy commissioner of the European Union, and others, say that new safety techniques and the lack of global warming gases emitted by nuclear plants make them an appropriate solution to the potentially catastrophic problem of climate disruption. And some environmental activists are coming around to support this view.
Among them is Hugh Montefiore the former Anglican Bishop of Birmingham, England, and a longtime trustee of Friends of the Earth in Britain. But after he went public about the need for nuclear power in an newspaper article, Bishop Montefiore was asked to resign from the leadership of Friends of the Earth, and he joins me now from London. Welcome to Living on Earth, Bishop.
MONTEFIORE: Yes, thank you. Hello.
CURWOOD: Tell me, what prompted you to change your thinking and come to the conclusion that nuclear power is the way to respond to the dangers of global warming?
MONTEFIORE: I think that what prompted me to change my thinking on this was trying to work out in practice how we can reduce global warming gases by 60 percent by 2050. And when I worked that out, I realized we couldn’t do it unless we changed human nature, deciding not to use cars so much, and so on and so forth—that we couldn’t do it without nuclear energy. And the more I looked into it, the stronger this conviction came.
CURWOOD: Is this a case of the lesser of two evils from your perspective, or do you really believe that nuclear power is the best energy alternative there is?
MONTEFIORE: Oh, I think it’s the best energy alternative. There are risks involved in anything, but I think the risks involved with nuclear power are far, far less than the risks if we don’t have it.
CURWOOD: Explain to me, please.
MONTEFIORE: Well, the International Panel on Climate Change supported by our environmental bodies here in England appointed by the government, tell us that we have to reduce the emissions of global warming gases by 60 percent by the year 2050 in order to keep the planet comfortable for life. That is an enormous amount, especially if a country like yours is making no effort to do anything about it. After all, you produce one-quarter of all these gases. And how we’re going to reduce sufficiently in this country, I cannot think...when I look at the alternatives, I cannot see them, this happening.
CURWOOD: Now, what about nuclear power’s problems, though? There are a number of things ranging from what do you do with the waste, to the notion that the material produced can be used to make bombs which might fall into the hands of the wrong people.
MONTEFIORE: Well, in the first case, there are 442 nuclear reactors in the world today, producing nuclear energy for electricity, and I cannot believe that producing more is going to include the risk of nuclear bombs. You have to have special material to make uranium used in the bombs from what is used from nuclear power. It is a second operation of considerable difficulty. So, so far as that’s concerned, I can’t take that very seriously.
CURWOOD: And the waste?
MONTEFIORE: Well, there are various forms of waste. Short-lived wastes are no problem. Intermediate wastes are buried in trenches of glacial clay which are compacted, containerized and capped with water-resistant clay. That’s not much problem. As for the long-lived wastes out of the old reactors, they have to cool down. It takes about 50 years or so. And then they have to be vitrified into a solid glass, sealed in a metallic container, placed in stable rock formations some 300 meters deep in the earth with a back fill to minimize any water movement. So I can’t see any difficulty there.
But the new… the new reactors such as are being constructed in Asia now make kind of pebbles, which are coated in carbon and only melt under 2,500 degrees. So I don’t think nuclear waste is the problem people say it is.
CURWOOD: Let me ask you about the money involved here. Nuclear power plants are very expensive. Why then should we be investing money in nuclear power over the long-term instead improving other technologies such as…
MONTEFIORE: Well, of course… such as what?
CURWOOD: Well, wind, geothermal, using hydrogen and fuel cells, or…
MONTEFIORE: Good heavens, you know about these. I mean in order to make hydrogen, you have to have electricity. And you either have electricity from renewable sources, in which case you’re using it, which could be more usefully used elsewhere. Or you are getting it from burning gas and coal. And as for wind power--do you really think we can reduce to 60 percent by turbines everywhere? We’re having an extra 8,000 turbines in England shortly. It’s ridiculous to think we can have it all over the place. And anyhow, they’re very expensive. I have looked at all the alternatives. I mean the most interesting one I think is removing the carbon from coal, carbon sequestration from coal. But it’s not commercial. There’s a conference being held by the Royal Society called the “potentiality” of this system. Well, we want something more than potentiality. The matter is becoming urgent.
CURWOOD: Now, how surprised were you that the Friends of the Earth, a group that you were part of for over two decades, could not accept your views, really your divergence of opinion from their majority, and that you were forced to resign from the board of directors?
MONTEFIORE: Well, I was sorry about it. I hoped they would allow an open debate in the matter. But it always has been the policy of these non-governmental environmental organizations, not only Friends of the Earth but Greenpeace and World Wide Fund for Nature, and all the rest of them, to campaign against nuclear energy. And I don’t think they like changing their ways. I mean, I used to believe in it. I thought we could get by without it. I didn’t particularly want it. I’m only saying we have to have it now because it’s necessary for the health of the planet. Well, it’s sad that they didn’t agree with me and let me go on, but I suppose they are a campaigning organization and campaigners like to speak with no uncertain voice.
CURWOOD: Hugh Montefiore is the former bishop of Birmingham. His article “Why the Planet Needs Nuclear Energy” appeared in the Oct. 23rd issue of The Tablet, a Catholic weekly out of England, and a copy of that appears on our website at www dot l- o-e dot o-r-g. Thanks for taking this time with me today, Bishop.
MONTEFIORE: Thank you very much. Goodbye.
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