Thursday 25 June 2020 6:04 am

A message from a former Extinction Rebellion activist: Fellow environmentalists, join me in embracing nuclear power

Zion Lights is director of Environmental Progress UK. She was formerly the editor of The Hourglass newspaper

As the lockdown measures we have become so familiar with over the past three months are slowly eased, discussions are turning to how to move forward with recovering from the economic hit of Covid-19 in a way that also addresses climate change.

I have a long history of campaigning on environmental issues, most recently as a spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion UK and the founder of its climate reporting newspaper The Hourglass. 

Now, I have quit the organisation to take up a position as a campaigner for nuclear power.

Read more: DEBATE: Is Extinction Rebellion’s target of net-zero emissions by 2025 economically viable?

When I went on the Andrew Neil Show last autumn, he asked me what solutions Extinction Rebellion had to offer to tackle climate change. Speaking for the organisation, I was careful not to say anything that was not backed by the movement’s declared policies, which are to leave it to Citizens’ Assembles to decide. 

However, the question has bothered me ever since — because there exist scientifically assessed solutions for addressing climate change, and in the energy arena one of those solutions is nuclear power.

The UK must find ways to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, which are highly polluting and dangerous. We are currently on track to miss our own emissions targets. And with Britain’s economic future looking shaky post-Covid19 and post-Brexit, energy independence could bring some much-needed strength to our country, as well as to jobs.

Boris Johnson’s government has committed to bringing carbon emissions down to net zero by 2050, but lacks a clear plan to show how this will be achieved. We need a reliable low-carbon energy source that we can invest in now. 

And we have one. Hinkley Point C was approved in 2016, and part of this plan is to build Sizewell C in Suffolk, which will provide seven per cent of the UK’s electricity needs and save an estimated nine million tonnes of carbon emissions for every year of its operation.

For many years I was skeptical of nuclear power. Surrounded by anti-nuclear activists, I had allowed fear of radiation, nuclear waste and weapons of mass destruction to creep into my subconscious. When a friend sent me a scientific paper on the actual impacts, including the (very small number of) total deaths from radiation at Chernobyl and Fukushima, I realised I had been duped into anti-science sentiment all this time.

Reading up on safety, I found that the nuclear accidents that have occurred in my lifetime were due to unusual and extreme circumstances, or human errors. Chernobyl, for example, occurred due to the use of a flawed reactor design which caused a power surge and explosion at one of the reactors, and Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi disaster  was triggered by the aftermath of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. 

However, even when including these disastrous events, scientific research has found that nuclear power is still safer than fossil fuels, once air pollution, accidents (from energy extraction) and greenhouse gas emissions are taken into account.

What of renewable alternatives? Alongside my fellow activists, I had been singing the praises of renewable energy for years. But while renewables can and should be part of the mix in supplying energy to the UK, the technology simply doesn’t stretch to powering our country 24/7. 

The late physicist David MacKay’s book explains that renewables alone would require unfeasibly massive amounts of storage to keep the lights on when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining, and although battery or hydrogen storage may be just around the corner, we are in a climate emergency and need all the clean energy we can build right now: renewables, nuclear, and carbon capture and storage.

I also discovered that nuclear waste is minimal, well-stored and well-managed, and has never actually killed anyone.

Anti-nuclear campaigners also argue that Hinkley is too expensive, which is understandable as construction projects do often go over budget, but it’s still nowhere near the £80bn cost of HS2. Luckily, standardisation reduces costs and improves efficiency. In South Korea building the same design over and over was found to yield the lowest costs and fastest build times: we should be capitalising on the expertise our engineers are acquiring at Hinkley to more economically build plants at Sizewell and elsewhere. 

To my surprise, when I shared the data with my anti-nuclear friends, they argued against the science. Alas, we parted ways. 

The mindset that you cannot be pro-environment and pro-nuclear at the same time needs challenging. The more research I read, the more I learned about how nuclear power is an essential tool in the battle to address climate change. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 1.5 Warming report — the very same report that drew the world’s attention to the realities of climate change — has a section on energy in which nuclear power features as an essential factor. To deny that is no different than denying that anthropogenic climate change is real. The scientific method is the same, just as rigorous and thorough, with both.

I had followed Mark Lynas’s admirable U-turn on GMO technology and on nuclear power, and seen environmentalist George Monbiot speak out in favour. I felt emboldened by those who are willing to amend their opinions based on facts. 

In the autumn of 2019 Michael Shellenberger, the founder of Environmental Progress in America, asked to interview me for his new book. During this discussion we touched on the topic of nuclear energy and found that we had something in common: Michael had also changed his mind about it. Now, he has invited me to direct Environmental Progress UK: a campaign we will be running to help educate people about the science behind nuclear, and to ensure that the UK invests in nuclear power.

Extinction Rebellion has played an essential role in raising awareness of climate change, and I applaud the organisation for that. Now, it is time to focus on solutions. It’s crucial that environmental activists tell the truth about nuclear power, instead of giving into peer pressure and fear.

We solve the climate crisis by tackling the energy crisis, and protecting our health at the same time — just look at the numbers of illnesses and deaths caused by air pollution from fossil fuels. This is why I’m sticking my head above the parapet and making the case for nuclear power in the UK. 

Fellow environmentalists, I need you to look over the facts, accept the science, and commit to helping me to radically decarbonise the UK. Covid-19 has led us to a crossroads and we now have a unique opportunity to build a green future that involves clean energy. 

I invite my fellow environmentalists to speak out in favour of nuclear power. It is — according to the experts — an essential part of our desperately vital attempts to tackle global warming. Here in Britain, and around the world, we do need nuclear.

Read more: A green light for sustainable investments

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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