“It would be madness to abandon our nuclear programme”, says Boris Johnson. And despite the media hysteria going on at the moment, he’s right. Russia has its hand on the gas taps. There is chaos sweeping the Middle East and Arab oil fields. The price of petrol is hitting record highs. Greenpeace are at the door as I write, protesting against the extraction of oil from tar sands in Canada. Energy security has never been so critical.
And despite the hype, nuclear is still the safest mainstream generating technology we have.
Let’s get it in perspective. Yesterday, in response to a histrionic spam e-mail against nuclear, I wrote: Industry deaths in Coal: >250,000. In Hydro: >250,000. In nuclear, fewer than 100. That’s actually one hundred — not an abbreviation for 100,000. Nuclear is not just safer than coal or hydro — it’s safer by many orders of magnitude.
You may be surprised at the death rates in coal and hydro. I certainly was. But at one stage in China alone the annual death rate in the mines exceeded 10,000. I believe it’s substantially below that today, but over time the numbers are huge. We think of hydro as benign, clean, controllable — almost the ideal renewable energy. But when an accident happens, it can be serious. In the Banqiao Dam accident in China in 1975, the estimated death toll was between 90 and 230,000 people, with another 145,000 fatalities as a result of consequent epidemics and famine. That’s just one incident.
Let’s recall that the largest peace-time explosion in the UK was not a nuclear accident, but the Buncefield disaster when a petroleum storage depot went up. Yet few people are calling for us to abandon oil.
And just to put some scale on the issue, at a very conservative estimate certainly 250,000 people have died in car accidents. And in the 1918 flu pandemic, estimates of the death rate worldwide range from 50 million to 100 million. Compare that to fewer than 100 deaths in the nuclear industry. Yet we worry more over nuclear energy than we do over influenza.
This morning a colleague sent me a chart from the Nuclear Energy Agency on mortality caused in Germany by emissions from different power technologies, expressed in years of life lost per gigawatt hour of generation. Oil topped the list at 0.12. Coal and lignite were mid-range at around 0.06. Natural gas and PV around 0.02. Wind and hydro around 0.01. And nuclear the lowest of all at around 0.005.
Of course it is right for governments to review their nuclear plans in the light of the news from Japan as it develops. It would be irresponsible to do otherwise. But it is important to draw the right lessons from the Japanese crisis. I think the obvious lesson is: don’t build nuclear power stations directly on a seismic fault line, and close to the sea. We in Britain have no plans to build in such circumstances — indeed thank heaven we don’t have sites like that. There is simply no read-across from Fukushima to the UK.
Our job is to keep nuclear safe — not to abandon it.