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Why greens must learn to love nuclear power

Global warming and finite resources mean our way of life is more threatened than ever, and it's time

"If nuclear power is the answer, it must have been a pretty stupid question," went an oft-cited slogan of the 1970s environmental movement. But the question was not stupid, and it is even less so today when the challenge is even blunter: how are we going to provide for our energy needs in a way that does not destroy, via global warming, the capacity of our planet to support life? The hard truth is that if nuclear power is not at least part of the answer, then answering that challenge is going to be very difficult indeed.

Unfortunately, just by writing the sentence above, I will already have prompted many readers to switch off. Being anti-nuclear is an article of faith (and I use that word intentionally) for many people in today's environmental movement and beyond, just as it was during the 1970s. That the Green Party, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have held the same position on the subject for 30 years could show admirable consistency - but it could also be evidence of dogmatic closed-mindedness.

When I first broached the issue in these pages three years ago, the reaction was extraordinary. A close acquaintance sent me a tearful email saying that I had "destroyed" her motivation for environmental campaigning. Other friends here in Oxford accused me - jokingly, of course - of having formed a romantic liaison with BNFL's spokeswoman. Just last week, after tackling the subject once again, I received a one-line email from a well-known environmentalist accusing me of having "done a considerable disservice to the cause of combating climate change".

So why does the nuclear issue evoke such strong reactions? For answers, I think we need to look to nuclear's past, when today's entrenched positions were first formed. Civil nuclear power began life as a heavily state-subsidised industry largely designed to produce plutonium for bombs. Civil nuclear power was part of the military-industrial complex and shrouded in secrecy. An association with the mushroom cloud has tainted the nuclear industry ever since - and clearly continues to be an issue in countries such as Iran, North Korea and Pakistan.

Then there is radiation. Most people are terrified of radiation precisely because it is invisible, making it all the more threatening, and because of its potential to cause cancer and genetic deformities. (Many other cancer-causing agents such as food or smoke seem innocuous by comparison.) Nuclear accidents and near-meltdowns - such as Three Mile Island in 1979 - provoke scary headlines throughout the media, as did popular treatments such as the film The China Syndrome (released, by an extraordinary stroke of luck for the film-makers, just 12 days before Three Mile Island), in which a sinister nuclear cabal covers up evidence of an accident.

It is undeniable that nuclear fission generates radioactive by-products, some of which will inevitably enter the environment. It is also undeniable that exposure to radiation increases the risk of cancer (though radiation can also be employed to treat cancers). But it is the level of risk that counts, and here the story is less fearsome than many would have us believe. Take Three Mile Island, which exposed local populations to one millirem of radiation on average. This equates to roughly what we all receive from natural sources (cosmic rays and naturally occurring radioactive elements in the ground) every four days. The number of deaths from Three Mile Island - the worst civil nuclear accident ever in a western country, and one that ended the US nuclear programme (not a single reactor has been built since) - is therefore officially estimated to be zero.

Even Chernobyl, surely the worst-imaginable case for a nuclear disaster, was far less deadly than most people think. In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, 28 people died due to acute radiation sickness - all firemen and power plant workers, some of whom had been exposed to radiation doses as high as one million millirems. By comparison, 167 men were killed during the Piper Alpha disaster on a North Sea oil rig in 1988. But it is the long-term effects from Chernobyl that tend to scare people most. In a 2006 report, Greenpeace claimed that "60,000 people have additionally died in Russia because of the Chernobyl accident, and estimates of the total death toll for the Ukraine and Belarus could reach another 140,000".

These figures, if correct, would make Chernobyl one of the worst single man-made disasters of the last century. But are they correct? The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation reports 4,000 cases of thyroid cancer in children and young people in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, but very few deaths (thyroid cancer is mostly treatable). Indeed, it concludes, "There is no evidence of a major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure 20 years after the accident", and no evidence of any increase in cancer or leukaemia among exposed populations. The World Health Organisation concludes that while a few thousand deaths may be caused over the next 70 years by Chernobyl's radioactive release, this number "will be indiscernible from the background of overall deaths in the large population group". Without wishing to downplay the tragedy for the victims - especially the 300,000 people who were evacuated permanently - the explosion has even been good for wildlife, which has thrived in the 30km exclusion zone.

A plentiful supply of free fuel

One way of statistically assessing the safety of nuclear power versus other technologies is to use the measure of deaths per gigawatt-year. This technique is cited by Cambridge University's Professor David MacKay in his book Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air (available free on the web), and shows that in Europe, nuclear and wind power are the safest technologies (about 0.1 death per GWy), while oil, coal and biomass the most dangerous (above 1 per GWy).

A focus on statistics is also useful when assessing the financial costs of nuclear power. The high price for nuclear waste disposal and decommissioning - with a hefty chunk always payable from public funds - is surely one of the environmental lobby's strongest arguments, particularly if any subsidy from taxpayers means taking money away from investment in renewables. Helen Caldicott's book Nuclear Power is Not the Answer discusses the finances of nuclear under a chapter subheaded "Socialised Electricity", quoting figures for nuclear's subsidy in the US over recent decades of $70bn. To make a direct cost comparison, the International Energy Agency in a 2005 study looked at life-cycle costs for all power sources - including construction costs, operations, fuel and decommissioning - and concluded that nuclear was the cheapest option, followed by coal, wind and gas.

But how about nuclear power's potential contribution to mitigating global warming? One persistent myth is that once construction and uranium mining are taken into account, nuclear is no better than fossil fuels. However, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), total life-cycle greenhouse-gas emission per unit of electricity is about 40g CO2-equivalent per kilowatt-hour, "similar to those for renewable energy sources".

But why not ditch nuclear and focus only on renewables, as the greens suggest? MacKay calculates that even if we covered the windiest 10 per cent of the UK with wind turbines, put solar panels on all south-facing roofs, implemented strong energy efficiency measures across the economy, built offshore wind turbines across an area of sea two-thirds the size of Wales, and fully exploited every other conceivable source of renewables (including wave and tidal power), energy production would still not match current consumption.

This is rather different to Britain being the "Saudi Arabia of wind power" as many in the environmental movement are fond of asserting. Indeed, MacKay concludes that we will need to import renewable electricity from other countries - primarily from solar farms in the North African desert - or choose nuclear, or both. Indeed, it is vital to stress the neither I nor MacKay nor any credible expert suggests a choice between renewables and nuclear: the sensible conclusion is that we need both, soon, and on a large scale if we are to phase out coal and other fossil fuels as rapidly as the climate needs. As MacKay told me: "We need to get building."

The UK's Sustainable Development Commission, in its 2006 report on nuclear power, argued that new plants should be ruled out until the existing waste problem could be solved. But what if a new generation of nuclear plants could be designed that, instead of producing more waste to leave as a toxic legacy for our grandchildren, actually generated energy by burning up existing waste stockpiles? This is the solution proposed by Tom Blees, a US-based writer, in his upcoming book Prescription for the Planet. Blees focuses particularly on so-called fourth-generation nuclear technology - better known as fast-breeder reactors. While conventional thermal reactors use less than 1 per cent of the potential energy in their uranium fuel, fast-breeders are 60 times more efficient, and can burn virtually all of the energy available in the uranium ore.

This gives these fourth-generation reactors a big advantage. As Blees puts it: "Thus we have a prodigious supply of free fuel that is actually even better than free, for it is material that we are quite desperate to get rid of." Moreover, fast-breeder reactors can also run on the "depleted" uranium left behind by conventional reactors, and help reduce the proliferation threat by burning up plutonium stockpiles left over from decommissioned nuclear weapons. Blees estimates that supplies of nuclear waste and depleted uranium are sufficient to "provide all the power needs of the entire planet for hundreds of years before we need to mine any more uranium". Although these reactors produce plutonium - which might be used for nuclear weapons, and could therefore pose a proliferation threat - weapons-grade material is never isolated in the fuel-cycle process, making fast-breeders less dangerous to international stability than conventional reactors, and relatively simple to inspect.

But what about the waste these reactors themselves produce? Since the by-products of fast-breeder reactors are highly radioactive, they have much shorter half-lives - rendering them inert in a couple of centuries, instead of the longer time over which conventional nuclear waste remains dangerous. (Once again there is a powerful myth here - that high-level waste from reactors remains dangerous for enormous lengths of time. Greenpeace states that "waste will remain dangerous for up to a million years". In fact, almost all waste will have decayed back to a level of radio activity less than the original uranium ore in less than a thousand years.) Fourth-generation nu clear technology is also inherently safer than earlier designs. The Integral Fast Reactor (IFR), discussed at length by Blees, operates at atmospheric pressure, reducing the possibility of leaks and loss-of-coolant accidents. It is also designed to be "walk-away safe", meaning that if all operators stood up and left, the reactor would shut itself down automatically rather than overheat and suffer a meltdown.

So why, given the purported advantages in safety and fuel use, have fast-breeders not been developed commercially? The US Integral Fast Reactor programme was shut down in 1994, possibly - Blees suggests - because of political pressure levied on the Clinton administration by anti-nuclear campaigners. (Even so, fourth-generation nuclear power plants are being built in India, Russia, Japan and China.) Ironically, the Clinton administration may have inadvertently killed off one of the most promising solutions to global warming in an attempt to please environmentalists. Even if the decision were to be reversed immediately, 20 years has been lost.

It is worth remembering the contribution that nuclear power has already made to offsetting global warming: the world's 442 operating nuclear reactors, which produce 16 per cent of global electricity, save 2.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year compared to coal, according to the IPCC. Blees agrees that "the most pressing issue is to shut down all coal-fired power plants" and urges a "Manhattan Project-like" effort to convert the world's non-renewable power to IFRs by the thousand. This sounds daunting but it is not unprecedented: France converted its power supply to 80 per cent nuclear in the space of just 25 years by building about six reactors a year.

An anti-nuclear report published by the Oxford Research Group in 2007 concluded that an additional 2,500 reactors would need to be built by 2075 to significantly mitigate global warming. The report's authors suggested that this was a "pipe-dream". But it sounds eminently achievable to me, given that it is only a five-times increase from today. The question is this: are those who care about global warming prepared to reconsider their opposition to nuclear power in this new era? We are no longer living in the 1970s. Today, the world is more threatened even than it was during the Cold War. Only this time nuclear power - instead of being part of the problem - can be part of the solution.

Mark Lynas has is an environmental activist and a climate change specialist. His books on the subject include High Tide: News from a warming world and Six Degree: Our future on a hotter planet.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Labour: How to save the party

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Tweeting terror: what social media reveals about how we respond to tragedy

From sharing graphic images to posting a selfie, what compels online behaviours that can often outwardly seem improper?

Why did they post that? Why did they share a traumatising image? Why did they tell a joke? Why are they making this about themselves? Did they… just post a selfie? Why are they spreading fake news?

These are questions social media users almost inevitably ask themselves in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as Wednesday’s Westminster attack. Yet we ask not because of genuine curiosity, but out of shock and judgement provoked by what we see as the wrong way to respond online. But these are still questions worth answering. What drives the behaviours we see time and again on social media in the wake of a disaster?

The fake image

“I really didn't think it was going to become a big deal,” says Dr Ranj Singh. “I shared it just because I thought it was very pertinent, I didn't expect it to be picked up by so many people.”

Singh was one of the first people to share a fake Tube sign on Twitter that was later read out in Parliament and on BBC Radio 4. The TfL sign – a board in stations which normally provides service information but can often feature an inspiring quote – read: “All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you.”

Singh found it on the Facebook page of a man called John (who later explained to me why he created the fake image) and posted it on his own Twitter account, which has over 40,000 followers. After it went viral, many began pointing out that the sign was faked.

“At a time like this is it really helpful to point out that its fake?” asks Singh – who believes it is the message, not the medium, that matters most. “The sentiment is real and that's what's important.”

Singh tells me that he first shared the sign because he found it to be profound and was then pleased with the initial “sense of solidarity” that the first retweets brought. “I don't think you can fact-check sentiments,” he says, explaining why he didn’t delete the tweet.

Dr Grainne Kirwan, a cyberpsychology lecturer and author, explains that much of the behaviour we see on social media in the aftermath of an attack can be explained by this desire for solidarity. “It is part of a mechanism called social processing,” she says. “By discussing a sudden event of such negative impact it helps the individual to come to terms with it… When shocked, scared, horrified, or appalled by an event we search for evidence that others have similar reactions so that our response is validated.”

The selfies and the self-involved

Yet often, the most maligned social media behaviour in these situations seems less about solidarity and more about selfishness. Why did YouTuber Jack Jones post a since-deleted selfie with the words “The outmost [sic] respect to our public services”? Why did your friend, who works nowhere near Westminster, mark themselves as “Safe” using Facebook’s Safety Check feature? Why did New Statesman writer Laurie Penny say in a tweet that her “atheist prayers” were with the victims?

“It was the thought of a moment, and not a considered statement,” says Penny. The rushed nature of social media posts during times of crisis can often lead to misunderstandings. “My atheism is not a political statement, or something I'm particularly proud of, it just is.”

Penny received backlash on the site for her tweet, with one user gaining 836 likes on a tweet that read: “No need to shout 'I'm an atheist!' while trying to offer solidarity”. She explains that she posted her tweet due to the “nonsensical” belief that holding others in her heart makes a difference at tragic times, and was “shocked” when people became angry at her.

“I was shouted at for making it all about me, which is hard to avoid at the best of times on your own Twitter feed,” she says. “Over the years I've learned that 'making it about you' and 'attention seeking' are familiar accusations for any woman who has any sort of public profile – the problem seems to be not with what we do but with who we are.”

Penny raises a valid point that social media is inherently self-involved, and Dr Kirwan explains that in emotionally-charged situations it is easy to say things that are unclear, or can in hindsight seem callous or insincere.

“Our online society may make it feel like we need to show a response to events quickly to demonstrate solidarity or disdain for the individuals or parties directly involved in the incident, and so we put into writing and make publicly available something which we wrote in haste and without full knowledge of the circumstances.”

The joke

Arguably the most condemned behaviour in the aftermath of a tragedy is the sharing of an ill-timed joke. Julia Fraustino, a research affiliate at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), reflects on this often seemingly inexplicable behaviour. “There’s research dating back to the US 9/11 terror attacks that shows lower rates of disaster-related depression and anxiety for people who evoke positive emotions before, during and after tragic events,” she says, stating that humour can be a coping mechanism.

“The offensiveness or appropriateness of humor seems, at least in part, to be tied to people’s perceived severity of the crisis,” she adds. “An analysis of tweets during a health pandemic showed that humorous posts rose and fell along with the seriousness of the situation, with more perceived seriousness resulting in fewer humour-based posts.”

The silence

If you can’t say anything nice, why say anything at all? Bambi's best friend Thumper's quote might be behind the silence we see from some social media users. Rather than simply being uncaring, there are factors which can predict whether someone will be active or passive on social media after a disaster, notes Fraustino.

“A couple of areas that factor into whether a person will post on social media during a disaster are issue-involvement and self-involvement,” she says. “When people perceive that the disaster is important and they believe they can or should do something about it, they may be more likely to share others’ posts or create their own content. Combine issue-involvement with self-involvement, which in this context refers to a desire for self-confirmation such as through gaining attention by being perceived as a story pioneer or thought leader, and the likelihood goes up that this person will create or curate disaster-related content on social media.”

“I just don’t like to make it about me,” one anonymous social media user tells me when asked why he doesn’t post anything himself – but instead shares or retweets posts – during disasters. “I feel like people just want likes and retweets and aren’t really being sincere, and I would hate to do that. Instead I just share stuff from important people, or stuff that needs to be said – like reminders not to share graphic images.”

The graphic image

The sharing of graphic and explicit images is often widely condemned, as many see this as both pointless and potentially psychologically damaging. After the attack, BBC Newsbeat collated tens of tweets by people angry that passersby took pictures instead of helping, with multiple users branding it “absolutely disgusting”.

Dr Kirwan explains that those near the scene may feel a “social responsibility” to share their knowledge, particularly in situations where there is a fear of media bias. It is also important to remember that shock and panic can make us behave differently than we normally would.

Yet the reason this behaviour often jars is because we all know what motivates most of us to post on social media: attention. It is well-documented that Likes and Shares give us a psychological boost, so it is hard to feel that this disappears in tragic circumstances. If we imagine someone is somehow “profiting” from posting traumatic images, this can inspire disgust. Fraustino even notes that posts with an image are significantly more likely to be clicked on, liked, or shared.

Yet, as Dr Kiwarn explains, Likes don’t simply make us happy on such occasions, they actually make us feel less alone. “In situations where people are sharing terrible information we may still appreciate likes, retweets, [and] shares as it helps to reinforce and validate our beliefs and position on the situation,” she says. “It tells us that others feel the same way, and so it is okay for us to feel this way.”

Fraustino also argues that these posts can be valuable, as they “can break through the noise and clutter and grab attention” and thereby bring awareness to a disaster issue. “As positive effects, emotion-evoking images can potentially increase empathy and motivation to contribute to relief efforts.”

The judgement

The common thread isn’t simply the accusation that such social media behaviours are “insensitive”, it is that there is an abundance of people ready to point the finger and criticise others, even – and especially – at a time when they should focus on their own grief. VICE writer Joel Golby sarcastically summed it up best in a single tweet: “please look out for my essay, 'Why Everyone's Reaction to the News is Imperfect (But My Own)', filed just now up this afternoon”.

“When already emotional other users see something which they don't perceive as quite right, they may use that opportunity to vent anger or frustration,” says Dr Kirwan, explaining that we are especially quick to judge the posts of people we don’t personally know. “We can be very quick to form opinions of others using very little information, and if our only information about a person is a post which we feel is inappropriate we will tend to form a stereotyped opinion of this individual as holding negative personality traits.

“This stereotype makes it easier to target them with hateful speech. When strong emotions are present, we frequently neglect to consider if we may have misinterpreted the content, or if the person's apparently negative tone was intentional or not.”

Fraustino agrees that people are attempting to reduce their own uncertainty or anxiety when assigning blame. “In a terror attack setting where emotions are high, uncertainty is high, and anxiety is high, blaming or scapegoating can relieve some of those negative emotions for some people.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.