Does humanity face an ugly choice between the devastation of global warming and potentially lethal nuclear waste?
This is the question posed by the nuclear energy lobby's emergence from years of stigma and near-bankruptcy to assert its supposedly green credentials.
The argument goes that nuclear power is a 'zero carbon' generator - that, unlike fossil fuels such as coal, gas and oil, it doesn't produce greenhouse gases, which must be cut drastically if we are to avoid runaway global warming and a proliferation of extreme weather events. James Lovelock, whose pioneering research established the causes of ozone depletion, has been the most prominent environmentalist to reluctantly accept that nuclear power is the only solution. Renewable sources - such as wind, wave, tidal and solar power - are currently insufficient to produce the scale of energy needed, he argues.
There are several problems with this line of reasoning. Firstly, nuclear power can only be considered a 'zero carbon' source if most of the chains of its production - including uranium mining, reactor construction and waste disposal - are excluded from the analysis. It's also not the speediest response to the problem - nuclear facilities take on average eight to 15 years to come online. Meanwhile Britain leaves virtually untapped one third of Europe's potential for wind energy and four fifths of EU-identified tidal power sites.
Crucially, it accepts that renewable sources cannot 'compete' with nuclear without challenging the huge disparities in investment that have marked their histories. Last year wind energy received its biggest ever government boon - £350 million over four years (conditional on meeting commercial targets). But this figure is dwarfed by the £100 billion spent on nuclear research by the industrialised nations between 1974 and 1998. And the nuclear industry has still been beset by losses that would have been fatal in any other industry. New Labour approved a £650 million state loan to the privatised British Energy in 2002, and took over its decommissioning liabilities and those of British Nuclear Fuels, amounting to £7 billion. Such costs should more accurately be placed in the defence budget, representing as they do a strategic investment in nuclear weaponry.
Tories such as Michael Howard and Margaret Thatcher's former press secretary Bernard Ingham have lined up with 'conservationist' David Bellamy to condemn wind farms. Weapons of mass destruction may have been illusory in Iraq but, according to Bellamy, they are in Britain disguised as turbines. He would be better advised to apply this description to nuclear power. The Chernobyl disaster in 1986 necessitated the evacuation of 135,000 people. If such an accident released just half of the nuclear waste stored in one of Britain's Sellafield buildings, the release of radioactive material would be 44 times greater.
With New Labour already downgrading to an 'aspiration' its target of providing 20 percent of the electricity supply from renewables by 2020, it appears that it is laying the groundwork for a nuclear renaissance. This could help it fulfil the deeply flawed Kyoto climate change treaty without the messy work of threatening the profits of big business, which are so entrenched in the oil economy.