skip to homepageArguments for and against Nuclear Power

The "InfoPack" section of this website gives a lot of detailed information. This section summarizes some of the main points.

A few people who have a reputation for a caring attitude to the environment have expressed support for nuclear power. So here we will look at what some of them say.

James Lovelock

"The Revenge of Gaia" by James Lovelock, 2006 has as chapter 5 "Sources of Energy". It begins by portraying nuclear energy as natural (implying harmless) and fossil fuels as 'bizarre'. The third paragraph begins "If it is perverse and dangerous to gain energy by burning fossil carbon in fossil oxygen, it may be equally so to imagine that comparable quantities of energy are freely and safely available from the so-called 'renewable' sources." [p66] He gives no preceding indication as to why we should consider fossil fuels "perverse and dangerous", and no logic as to why we should think the same of renewables. (In fact he later mentions [p84] the Severn Estuary tidal scheme which might produce 6% of UK energy, and to which he makes no objections, flatly contradicting himself.)

This is typical of the verbal tricks that scientists may play when they are on unsure ground. Instead of presenting facts they make suppositions, use emotive language ('bizarre', 'perverse'), and argue from analogies. In sum, they become unscientific.

Lovelock goes on to make valid points about over-reliance on biofuels, but he has already done his worst, in prejudicing the mind of the reader. After saying that wind, tide and solar energy will have harmful consequences, he then says "I believe nuclear power is the only source of energy that will satisfy our demands and yet not be a hazard to Gaia". [p67] So we now see why he has been rubbishing all the alternatives to nuclear. He does not mention that nuclear power has harmful consequences, nor that there is no way nuclear can provide all our energy needs. Nor does he make a distinction between needs and demand. The fact is, consumer society pushes increasing demand and false wants through advertising.

Next he touts the energy density of uranium, completely ignoring the fact that it takes tons of mined ore (and highly energy intensive processing) to produce nuclear fuel in a usable form. Then he says "We could use nuclear fission or fusion for quite some time before we ran into the kind of problem we are now having with fossil fuel." [p68] He does not state what kind of problem this is, and ignores the fact that current estimates for available uranium are only between 30 and 60 years at present rates of use - and much shorter if more power stations are built. In the UK, nuclear power accounts for about 20% of electricity supply, and electricity is only a fraction of our energy use.

He goes on to praise geothermal energy "But of course geothermal energy comes mainly from the heat generated by radioactive elements in the rocks and, like solar energy, is nuclear in origin." [p68] Do you get the idea that anything with the word 'nuclear' in it is good, and anything else bad? You'd think he was paid by the nuclear industry. He draws no distinction between the different forms and applications of nuclear energy - how odd for a scientist!

He later says "There is a naive belief that fossil fuels are unnatural and non-renewable. This false concept ...". [p72] Although it is technically correct that fossil fuels are renewable, this takes millions of years. For practical human purposes, fossil fuels are non-renewable. On the same page he says "burning large quantities of wood or crops grown for fuel, something falsely considered as renewable energy ...", contradicting himself. He makes no distinction between the timescale of a million years (for fossil fuels) and a few years (for 'bio-fuels'). Whether or not bio-fuels are an acceptable energy source, his writing demonstrates either confused thinking or a deliberate attempt to confuse readers.

Of wind power he says "the true costs have been hidden from the public by subsidies and the distortion of market forces through legislation" [p83] yet he makes no mention that these factors are even more true of nuclear power. Nuclear power has been heavily subsidized from the start, and continues to be subsidized even though it is now a 'mature' industry. This is in contrast with renewables, which have been comparatively starved of research funding and are industries still in development.

Talking of nuclear fusion he says "The sun, of course, can afford to burn at a much more leisurely pace." [p89] What does he mean by this absurd statement? What does 'afford' mean in this context? The phrase "of course" implies that readers will be aware of what he means already. Are you? This is hardly scientific clarity.

Of nuclear waste, Lovelock says it is "the perfect guardian against greedy developers, and whatever slight harm it may represent was a small price to pay." [p91] "Wild plants and animals do not perceive radiation as dangerous, and any slight reduction in their lifespans is far less a hazard than is the presence of people and their pets." Is he suggesting that we spread the waste of Sellafield around Cumbria to encourage wildlife? It is not only animals, but also humans that cannot naturally detect radiation; they simply don't perceive it, dangerous or not. This does not mean that it is not dangerous. Has he any data for the 'slight' reduction in their lifespan? He nowhere mentions the genetic damage caused by radiation, which has been observed in the wildlife around Chernobyl.

"An outstanding advantage of nuclear over fossil fuel energy is how easy it is to deal with the waste it produces." [p91] Lovelock is lying. In 50 years no safe solution to nuclear waste has been found. He simply ignores the inconvenient truth. "The nuclear waste buried in pits at the production sites is no threat to Gaia and dangerous only to those foolish enough to expose themselves to its radiation." Lovelock should try telling this to those deformed children who live near a uranium mine in India. Again he shows his ignorance: neither the uranium ore mined, nor the waste from nuclear power stations is buried in pits. The radioactive ore 'tailings' are left to blow or wash away into water supplies, and the waste from power stations is far too radioactive to be simply buried.

He then offers to take one year's nuclear waste from one power station and have it in a pit in his back garden, saying "it would be no danger to me" [p92]. He knows full well he would never be allowed to do this. The waste is carried in 14-inch thick steel containers, which themselves become radioactive over time. They are water cooled, and if this water evaporated the waste would combust. And it's not just his own lifetime he has to worry about: plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years. Does he know who'll be the owner of his back garden after even a thousand years? One of the major problems of nuclear waste is that records of what is stored where are lost. Lovelock would be irresponsibly playing with other people's lives if he had such radioactive waste buried in his garden.

On the debate about nuclear energy he says "The green lobbies are large, whereas the nuclear industry, by comparison, is tiny compared with oil and coal companies" [p92]. Here again we see him playing with words and false logic. He makes it sound like he compares the green lobbies with nuclear industry - which in fact spends vastly more on public relations and lobbying - but he conflates this with a comparison between the nuclear and fossil fuel industries. He follows this with an argument that the nuclear industry is small compared to fossil fuels because the fuel is more concentrated. This is simply not a logical deduction. The nuclear industry is more high-tech and far more complex. It has large budgets and government subsidies. He goes on to say "the nuclear industry can hardly afford pro-nuclear demonstrations and advertisements". This is an outright lie; the nuclear industry has taken out full page ads in national newspapers, and regularly distributes propaganda and freebies in schools. In addition government does free promotional advertising for the nuclear industry.

He reveals his heavy bias to nuclear power by dissing anyone who opposes it: "an anti-nuclear activist will never hesitate to exaggerate and speculate." [p92] No scientist, such as Lovelock claims to be, would be so utterly dogmatic as to say 'never' - not unless they had some un-scientific axe to grind. In the next sentence he uses the phrase "a good and honest scientist". The obvious intention is to contrast this with anti-nuclear activists. Although he doesn't explicitly say that all scientists are good and honest, the implication is there. In fact there are many scientists opposed to nuclear power, but probably Lovelock would say that these are just the rogue few who are not good and honest.

Amazingly, he goes on to say "Younger scientists cannot freely express their opinions without risking their ability to apply for grants or publish papers." [p93] Yet he does not make the logical deduction that this favours the nuclear industry and pro-nuclear government, who provide most of the grant money for nuclear research!

He says "our Queen opened in 1956 the world's first nuclear power station at Calder Hall." [p94] It was propagandized as a power station but it was built to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. Over its lifetime Calder Hall consumed more energy than the tiny amount of electricity it produced. This is well documented and Lovelock should have known it.

Of the many bomb tests he says "It may comfort us to know that these tests, which produced as much fallout as a medium-scale nuclear war, posed no great threat to the Earth, or the health and well-being of its inhabitants." [p95] It is estimated that the fallout will eventually account for some 60 million premature deaths. Again, these are details Lovelock should know, yet he writes in vague terms of "no great threat".

Of nuclear accidents, Lovelock says that no one was harmed by the one at Three Mile Island. It is true that no one was immediately killed, but a significant amount of radiation was released, and local farmers witnessed a larger number of suspicious deaths in their cattle (which fed on contaminated grass). It is very difficult to prove that a particular death is due to radiation, for, as from smoking and asbestos, cancer takes years to develop and has multiple possible causes. But from the quantity of radiation released we can estimate the number of deaths attributable to it. Lovelock does not seem to know much about the statistical analysis of cause and effect, which is used in epidemiology to prove the link between smoking and lung cancer.

On page 99 Lovelock uses an interesting ploy: first he admits to an "unreasoning fear" of being drowned by a tsunami, then he puts "similar fears of a nuclear catastrophe" in the same category. This is a psychological trick: to first admit a weakness and gain the reader's sympathy, then gloss over a category error. Although he admits that he lives in a location safe from tsunamis, the radiation from Chernobyl did reach the UK and many other parts of Europe.

"We need emission-free energy sources immediately, and there is no serious contender to nuclear fission." [p99] Firstly, it takes 10 to 15 years from site proposal to a working nuclear power station, which is hardly immediate. Secondly, nuclear power is not emission-free: the whole of the nuclear fuel 'cycle' emits considerable CO2, power stations emit Krypton gas (which is a greenhouse gas), and there are radioactive emissions from power stations and other parts of the nuclear power industry.

When Lovelock compares the immediate death toll of a dam burst with that from Chernobyl, he follows the usual omissions of the pro-nuclear lobby. What is crucial about radiation is that the death toll and other health effects continue for decades, centuries or longer. He says that at most 75 people died from Chernobyl (the firemen and others involved in the immediate clean-up). He totally ignores the fact that the total number of deaths can be estimated from the quantity of radioactivity released - deaths that run into tens of thousands. As with Windscale, Three Mile Island and other accidents, the health effects have continued for decades.

Lovelock totally ignores the fate of children born since the Chernobyl accident. The incidence of leukaemia in Ukraine and Byelorussia has increased significantly, and there have been horrendous birth defects. Naturally the authorities don't want to advertise this, but the data are there if you look for them.

To show how safe nuclear power is, he reproduces a table comparing the fatalities and power output of various energy sources from 1970 to 1992. For nuclear he states 31 fatalities - this is for workers only, not even considering the firefighters who died (even though he gave the figure of 75 earlier), and totally ignoring the public, yet he includes the public fatalities for other industries. This number is repeatedly printed in the media as the death toll of Chernobyl, and is totally misleading.

"The persistent distortion of the truth about the health risks of nuclear energy should make us wonder if other statements about nuclear energy are equally flawed." [p103] Couldn't agree more. But whereas Lovelock means distortion by anyone not pro-nuclear, it is the nuclear industry and government who are culpable of repeated lies (there is no other word for it). In fact BNFL and the government have admitted to misreporting, withholding evidence, and cover-ups.

On dealing with plutonium, he says "It is all being done with stealth and pretence; we have never been asked if we were prepared to pay this huge cost." [p103] Again, no dispute. But whereas Lovelock has some fanciful idea that all the plutonium can be used for nuclear power, most others see it as a highly dangerous waste - and the UK government have reluctantly finally agreed with them. His comment is equally true of nuclear power as a whole: we have never been asked if we were prepared to pay its huge costs - in money and in human health.


Besides the factual and logical errors that Lovelock makes, there are several important factors that he completely ignores (besides those already mentioned):

Anyone can find a few flaws or mistakes in a lengthy piece of writing, but this detailed analysis shows that Lovelock exhibits a repeated pattern of bias and non-science when it comes to the question of nuclear power. It is important to examine his writing because he is respected by some environmentalists, and his opinion is used to bolster the nuclear lobby.

skip to homepage created: 7-Feb-11