Editorial: Time is running out for blind opposition to nuclear power

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It is not to be wondered at that New Zealand has distanced itself from the position of the US and Australia in the nuclear-energy debate. Our nuclear-free status probably enjoys more widespread popular support than any other single policy because it is an integral part both of our "clean and green" brand and of our identity: our declaration 20 years ago, which reverberated around the world, marked the moment when the country came of age.

We live in a different world now. The nuclear threat to the planet pales into insignificance beside the threat posed by climate change. At the Apec summit this week, the issue came into sharp focus. The leaders were under pressure to forge agreement over climate change, and US President George Bush immediately went into bat for what he calls "nucular" energy. "If you truly care about greenhouse gases ... you should be supportive of nuclear power," he said.

Among the Kiwi contingent, the suggestion was as appetising as a plutonium milkshake. Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters muttered darkly that we were not going to "abrogate our sovereignty"; Trade and Disarmament Minister Phil Goff cited "other concerns", including waste disposal, safety issues and the creation of terrorist targets; and PM Helen Clark, who sees no role for nuclear power in the climate-change debate, dismissed it as "not something we are going to endorse".

Such an unequivocal attitude flies in the face of shifting international and scientific opinion. Barely a year ago, Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace (which now derides him as an apostate), wrote that "nuclear energy is the only large-scale, cost-effective energy source that can reduce [greenhouse gas] emissions while continuing to satisfy a growing demand for power". James Lovelock, the author of the Gaia hypothesis, pronounced that "only nuclear power can now halt global warming" and wrote "I entreat my friends in the [Green] movement to drop their wrongheaded objection to nuclear energy".

That nuclear power poses risks is indisputable. But those risks need to be assessed in context of the certain - not potential - environmental havoc that is being wrought by the use of fossil fuels to generate energy. In the US, more than 600 coal-fired power plants produce 36 per cent of that country's - and almost 10 per cent of the world's - emissions of carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas responsible for climate change. China is building a new coal-fired power station every week.

The danger posed by nuclear generation of power has seized the public imagination. The 1979 reactor core meltdown at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island nuclear power plant - which chillingly mimicked one in a newly released film - struck fear into American hearts. In the hysteria, everyone forgot that no radiation escaped into the environment and no one was injured or killed. Yet not a single nuclear-power plant has been built in the US since.

Most people think countless thousands, even millions, of people died as a result of the Chernobyl accident in 1986. The World Health Organisation's count is 75 - and all of those were people involved in fighting the fire and the cleanup. What is more, Chernobyl was a shoddily built, poorly maintained Soviet-era station belonging to a collapsing oligarchy: more than 20 years later, with all the technical development that has occurred, it is a poor example of the supposed risk.

It may well be that nuclear power is not viable here on practical or political grounds, though the likelihood is that we will fail to meet our emissions-reduction targets without a change in energy strategy. But we do ourselves and the world no favours by refusing out of hand to endorse or explore the nuclear option. When the biosphere collapses, it won't spare this country just because we remained philosophically pure.

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