Forever in the shadow of Chernobyl

Twenty years on the mention of Chernobyl provokes an immediate shudder of recognition, even amongst those too young to recall directly the catastrophe of 26 April 1986. The explosion that released clouds of radioactive particles which travelled thousands of miles - even polluting the hill farms of west Wales - came in the dying throes of the Soviet Union which, in its traditional fashion, tried initially to keep it secret. Once it became clear that monitoring devices in Scandinavia were picking up evidence of a massive radiation leak, Gorbachev admitted the accident and asked for western help.

It was not the only nuclear accident but simply the largest in a series which included Three Mile Island in the USA and Windscale in north west England.

Chernobyl is a stark warning to every country of the appalling and enduring potential consequences of the reliance on the nuclear option for energy generation. Every individual who entered within a thirty mile radius of the nuclear plant is now either dead or suffers gravely from radiation sickness. No wonder it became known as the suicide zone. These were mainly brave volunteers who went to shut down the plant and to construct a now crumbling concrete casing around it. A few were military and civilian workers who had no choice.

Despite all of this the development of nuclear power stations is back on the political agenda. It is there because it is compellingly obvious that the "first world" is incapable of reducing its consumption of electricity, or, for that matter of fuel for its vehicles, on anything like a big enough scale in time to avoid catastrophic damage to the ozone layer.

The only other major alternative to nuclear energy is fossil fuel whose use produces huge carbon dioxide emissions which contribute significantly to global warming. Renewable energy sources, whether wind, water or wave, are all worthy but contribute a fraction of global requirements. In short, there is no means in the foreseeable future of maintaining our current energy demands without recourse to one or other of these flawed options.

Politics is far more than the art of the possible. It is also the rejection of the impossible, even if that option is in itself desirable. What is possible may not be expedient, and this is the stark truth of the failure of political leadership over recent decades.

The warnings have gone unheeded, and we are bequeathing an incrementally graver situation to each succeeding generation. In visible and practical terms what marks out the "first world" countries from the rest is infrastructure. Not simply roads, railways and telephones but, more basically, electricity and water. Earlier this month I returned to Cotonou, the capital of Benin in West Africa. Five minutes after I arrived at the office on my first day back the electricity went off for two hours. Shortly afterwards I went to the toilet and it wouldn't flush - no water. Both came back on eventually but such unreliability is part of life in most of the world. Indeed, many communities would be grateful for even a highly irregular supply.

We take basic services for granted and my colleagues in Africa are astonished to hear that the concept of unreliable electricity and water supplies is unknown in Britain. And the idea of gas being piped to houses is greeted with bemusement.

And then there is the motor car, that first symbol of financial achievement. The whole country goes into spasm at the mere rumour that petrol supplies might be limited, and everyone rushes round to fill up at the first petrol station that hasn't been cleaned out by panic buying.

One way or another our energy consumption is way beyond what the planet can accommodate but tucked away at the back of our minds is the thought that somehow there will be a miracle answer before it is too late. There won't be, but it is no use looking to our political leaders to say so. The party struggle and the prize of power through the ballot box rules out suicidal initiatives, however important. Can anyone imagine a major party campaigning on a platform of enforcement of the drastic cuts in consumption that are urgently needed? We are rightly going down the path of energy conservation through building regulations and through incentives but it hardly touches the hem of the problem. Even increasing taxation on petrol and diesel prices at the pump - and the price today is twice that in the USA - has nowhere near enough effect.

The only way to avoid the political suicide of telling the truth about energy generation would be to establish a unique political consensus. This would require an inter-party agreement on a set of minimum ecological imperatives which are then put beyond challenge for individual party gain. Along with Dr Jerry Ravetz, then Secretary of the Council for Science and Society, who could deliver top scientists, I tried to get such a project underway in 1989 when I was at the Policy Studies Institute. To my surprise, and dismay, there was no interest whatever in funding it.

If that is still the case today, the nuclear option has to be top of the agenda. None of us have learned to love nuclear fission and the long term problem of disposal of its highly toxic waste is still unresolved. The threat of terrorist attacks on nuclear installations is greater than ever and the twentieth anniversary of Chernobyl is a sharp reminder of the permanent imminence of an accident that is bound to leave a toxic footprint across a wide area - not least from the rickety installations in the former Soviet Union. And the potential crossover from civil to military use is still frightening those who have nuclear weapons but are determined that, say, Iran should not develop them.

Looked at through only the prism of the contribution to global warming, the situation is clear: coal is the worst offender, followed by oil and natural gas. Whatever other dangers it carries, nuclear generation has virtually no damaging consequences on the ozone layer. It is in this context that the expansion of nuclear power stations has gained its most eminent convert: James Lovelock, the author of the Gaia thesis on the interdependence of the planet's eco systems to guarantee human existence. Lovelock's latest book The Revenge of Gaia, which includes his espousal of the nuclear option, was described by one reviewer, John Gray, as "the most important book ever to be published on the environmental crisis."

The nuclear option was never going to go away completely. Almost 80% of France's electricity generation is nuclear based. For the UK the equivalent figure is 29%. In the world as a whole there are 436 plants in thirty-one countries. This is substantial by any estimate.

So, if we want the light to come on every time we flick the switch and if we want central heating in winter and air conditioning in summer, we had better concentrate on solutions to the problems that the large scale development of nuclear power stations across Europe and North America will bring. It's on its way. Twenty years of western selfishness since Chernobyl have guaranteed it.

17 April 2006