Nuclear power: a convert

Mark Lynas was sure it would be a disaster - and then he looked at the alternatives

Suddenly, it seems that everyone's talking about the end of oil - and not necessarily for the right reasons. Take the recent Peak Oil UK conference in Edinburgh. Lurking at the back was a delegation from the BNP, including the party's odious leader, Nick Griffin. Why were they there? Simple, Griffin told my informant. Once oil peaks, the global economy will lurch into a terrible recession - just as it did in the 1930s. Chaos and strife will ensue. "We would expect to come to power by the end of the decade."

I wasn't at that meeting but I did attend the Energy . . . Beyond Oil conference in Oxford earlier this month. The meeting focused on what could replace fossil fuels, and I arrived convinced - as I wrote in these pages a few weeks ago - that opting for nuclear power would be a disastrous mistake. Before long my comfortable green certainties were in tatters.

Don't get me wrong: this was not one of the nuclear PR junkets Jonathan Leake warned us against in last week's New Statesman. Advocates of each potential non-carbon energy source were invited to speak in turn, with geothermal at the top of the list. It seemed like a great idea for Iceland, but less so for the UK, where as far as I know there are very few volcanoes. Next up was tidal and wave, for which I had high hopes. The speaker showed slides of wind-turbine-like things that sit under the surface of the sea and generate power from tidal currents. In theory. None has actually been built yet. There is one wave-power prototype being tested somewhere off Orkney. "Wave technology is in the same state as wind was 20 years ago," the speaker said. Sadly, he was being optimistic.

By this time, I was getting desperate. What about solar? The use of photovoltaics is increasing at a rate of 30 per cent per year, with Japan taking a lead. But it remains hopelessly uneconomic, and the speaker, Michael Gratzel, called for a Manhattan Project-style global drive for a materials breakthrough. Biological solar (biofuels) needs a breakthrough, too: if we want to feed our cars there will not also be enough land available to feed our people.

Thank God for wind, then. The UK is the windiest country in Europe and could produce up to a fifth of its electricity from wind turbines. Except that vitriolic campaigns spring up wherever turbines are proposed: Whinash in Cumbria is merely the latest. Offshore wind would help, but it is more expensive and less accessible. There's also the problem of variability - even greens don't want their computers to shut down when the wind stops blowing.

Then came Sue Ion of BNFL. Carbon-free nuclear power produces nearly a quarter of our electricity, she reminded us, but the stations are closing and by 2020 only one will be left, supplying just 3 per cent. What can replace them? I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation. Even with crash programmes for wind, wave and tidal, with nuclear stations closing we would still have the same greenhouse-gas emissions by 2020 as we do today.

Energy efficiency could make up a large part of the gap, but it's a long shot. People want the latest energy-hungry techno-gadget more than they want insulated lofts, while almost the entire political class holds economic growth as an article of faith. And don't even mention energy reduction to India and China. Hydrogen would be great if only we could find some way to generate it without using fossil fuels. Oh, and it's difficult to store and no use at all for aeroplanes.

I'm not suggesting that nuclear is a panacea. It can reduce carbon emissions only as part of a combined dash for renewables and energy efficiency, buying us time while truly clean energy systems are developed. True, renewed nuclear power could lead to Chernobyl-style accidents or terrorist attacks and will leave a legacy of toxic waste for millennia. But have you considered what five or six degrees of global warming would do to the planet? Something far worse, I assure you.

And just in case we also find ourselves running out of uranium, here's another idea. Why not burn up all the nuclear warheads currently stockpiled in the US and UK (and Israel)? That would deal nicely with the WMD problem while keep- ing us all in carbon-free energy for a few decades. If you ask me, anything is preferable to planetary climatic meltdown combined with a 1930s-style collapse into political darkness. Even nuclear power.

Mark Lynas is the author of High Tide: how climate crisis is engulfing our planet (Harper Perennial)

www.marklynas.org