Monday, 30 November 2009


Tony Benn’s voluminous diaries are undoubtedly a valuable resource for informed comment on nuclear policies.

Benn was Labour Minister of Technology in 1966, Minister of Power in 1969, and Energy Minister from 1975 to 1979. Writing about the closure of the Dounreay nuclear plant in Scotland, Tony Benn’s diary on Friday 5 June 1998 recorded: ‘Nuclear power is finished and I’m glad I saw it; I saw it late, but I’m glad I saw it in time.’

With hindsight, we may add wryly ‘better late than never’ - as Benn’s erstwhile colleagues in the New Labour Government commit the UK to a new generation of nuclear power stations, and renewal of the Trident nuclear missile system. Tory policy is not significantly different.

The Green Party policy statements have long opposed nuclear power and nuclear weapons. Nuclear power to combat global climate change is a delusion. There are horrendous cost implications of more nuclear power – not least at public expense long after the private companies have taken their profits and vanished. There remains the unsolved problem of nuclear waste; the half-life of the highly radiotoxic plutonium - 239 fuel is 24,100 years: the risks of high burnup spent nuclear fuel; health dangers of radiation and the transport hazards of nuclear materials; the genetic and health risks of even low radiation doses.

Twinned with the nuclear power delusion is the parallel delusion of support for nuclear weapons as a rational and realistic basis for international security. The historic links between nuclear power and nuclear weapons date back to the first Magnox nuclear reactor opened at Calder Hall in 1956. It was heralded as the first civil nuclear power station, but had been developed from the atomic bomb programme, and its primary purpose was military: to produce material for more nuclear weapons.

Careful analysis of these nuclear delusions of power and security is central to formulating a green approach. Democratic accountability and access to information are key elements. They are early casualties in the nuclear story. It is fascinating, and shocking, to turn to again to Tony Benn’s diaries. On Monday 14 March 1977, Benn recorded: “John Hill (Chair of UK Atomic Energy Authority) came in to talk about Windscale. I asked ‘What are the real hazards there?’ and he told me something extraordinary. ‘Well, there’s activity everywhere you dig on that site. ….. Whenever we had a spill we just covered it up. …. In 1957 one of the reactors caught fire and we simply poured in 300,000 tons of water which went right through the plant and into the ground.’ ” Next year, on Friday 9 June 1978, after a visit to Windscale, Benn confided to his diary: ‘Nobody can truthfully say that this whole project can be handed over to future generations to look after safely when they’ve no idea whether future generations will be faced with invasion, earthquakes, floods …It is a tremendously risky thing to do, and the duration of the risk, 10,000 or 15,000 years, is enormous.’

We can be sure nuclear accidents are still happening, and news never reaches us via the media. The desperate promotion of nuclear power as a solution, or even partial solution, to the climate change crisis is driven opportunistically by the nuclear industry. It is unfortunate that some environmentalists have been seduced by their specious arguments. The timescale alone for a nuclear programme is far too long. Renewable energy sources are the only answer. Not the feeble hesitating measures so far, but a truly determined effort by government. Failure to support the Vestas workers is a defining demonstration of the absence of serious commitment to renewable energy by New Labour. Nuclear power stations are potentially highly dangerous centralized sources of energy in a game of power politics. Nuclear power is not carbon neutral. Nuclear weapons are useless against a security threat from terrorism. The use of nuclear weapons in any conceivable circumstances would be an insane act. There exists an agenda around nuclear weapons which is rooted in hypocrisy. We plan to extend our nuclear power programme, while denying some countries the option. We retain and enhance our nuclear weapons, which are deemed essential for our security, but not keeping our side of the non-proliferation agreement.

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