The first question then is: Does the world need nuclear to avert global warming and/or replace fossil fuels?
And I’m afraid the answer is an unequivocal Yes. It is pretty much inevitable that as fossil fuels dwindle, we are going to use nuclear more. But we must not make the error of seeing it as a solution to these problems. Debate goes on over how long supplies of uranium and other fissile materials will last, but there is no question that like fossil fuels before them, they are finite. Even if they are safer than hydrocarbons – even if they were perfectly safe – they remain a stopgap measure.
The real technical challenge we face is making these non-renewables hold out until renewable energy systems are sufficiently developed to take their place. We have a destination to reach, if you like, and just one tank to get there on. We do not know how long the journey is. There are no filling stations.
And we need to get there as soon as we can. In part of course because both fossil and fissile are environmentally harmful, but mainly because the more of them we use up, the more expensive they will become. A world that is struggling to find sufficient energy just to keep going is not a world that will be able to take on massive engineering projects. If we do not reach that destination while energy is still relatively cheap, we may find that we cannot afford to get there ever. In which case, we face war and starvation on a barely imaginable scale. Energy is, quite simply, the means to survival.
So what I fear most about nuclear power is not its risks, but that it will give us a sense of energy security where none is justified. We need – and we need right now – to focus on the long-term destination, not on finding new ways to keep the unsustainable going that little bit longer.