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Green “turncoats” and the windfarm terror

Friday 27 February 2009

Our countryside correspondent John Sheard, who has a national newspaper reporter spent months investigating – and failing to prove – allegations against the nuclear power industry, welcomes this week’s conversion of former “green” activists to the atomic energy cause

ON THOSE bitterly cold mornings just before and after Christmas, when night-time temperatures had dropped to -8C in some parts of the Yorkshire Dales, I would look out of my study window and see plumes of smoke rising in columns as straight as pine trees from houses where the day’s fires were being lit.

And I smiled a pretty cynical smile. For these perpendicular pillars showed that there was not a whisper of wind during what proved to be the coldest winter for 30 years. And at the time, Craven District Council was bravely refusing planning permission for a massive windfarm near Gargrave and has since rejected an application to build more massive wind turbines on an existing site at Draughton.

nuclear poer station
Nuclear: nasty but necessary
Photo: Keith Beardmore/Sellafield Ltd

This has been greeted with acclaim by the majority of Dales folk – there are “green” exceptions of course – but their triumph could well be premature. There is a very good chance indeed that those refusals will go to appeal and with this Government firmly at the controls of the fashionable green band wagon, there is every chance that both developments will be forced through by Whitehall.

This would be typical of New Labour and its minions because there has been a sea change in attitudes towards electricity generation amongst some of the best environmental, scientists in the land. In their considered opinion – unless we want to light to go out in Britain in the next decade or so – wind power is OUT and (horror of horrors) nuclear energy is most definitely IN.

Sir James Lovelock, who virtually founded the English environmental movement, shocked his green fellow-travellers several years ago by saying that nuclear power was the only possible alternative to global warming. Since then, concerted efforts have been made to discredit him as a turncoat.

But this week, four more prominent environmentalists switched sides and joined the nuclear support group: Lord Smith of Finsbury, chairman of the Environment Agency, Stephen Tindale, former director of Greenpeace, Mark Lynas, an award-winning science writer, and Green Party would-be-MP Chris Goodall.

And their reason is simple: those pillars of smoke. For wind-power to be part of a reliable electricity generation system, it would have to be backed up by dozens of traditional power stations to come into use when the wind is not strong enough to drive huge turbines – and that could be up to 70% of the time in many areas.

That means not just colossal expense but a countryside crossed by thousands of miles of overhead power lines. The Yorkshire Dales, being a prime target for subsidy-seeking wind power entrepreneurs because of its hills, would end up looking like a cat’s cradle – not just an aesthetic disaster but an economic own-goal for the vital tourist trade.

Now there will undoubtedly be people who challenge my views of this subject: what is a man who is supposed to love the countryside and its wildlife doing supporting grim, ugly nuclear power stations? My answer, sadly, is that I hate the places as much as anyone for their intrusiveness.

But much as the idea of going back to the Middle Ages or further, lighting our huts with oil lamps and cooking on open wood fires, appeals to the romantic in me, it is entirely unfeasible in a first world country with a population growing like a rabbit warren – an extra ten million people at least by 2050 and some estimates add another ten million to that.

And when it comes to nuclear power, I have more close-up experience than most. As a national newspaper investigative reporter in the 1970s, I tried several times to track down allegations of “clusters” of cancer around the Sellafield nuclear energy plant in Cumbria and so-called “Frankenstein fish” in the Irish Sea. I never succeeded once.

Not a single worker has ever been killed by a nuclear leak in Britain

It turned out that there were similar cancer clusters in several parts of the UK many miles from any nuclear facility. They could have been caused by naturally occurring radon gas, or something in the water, or even acid rain from coal-fired power stations. As far as I know, none of these theories were ever proved.

But the man with the worst PR job in Britain – at Sellafield – demonstrated to me using a sophisticated form of Geiger counter that this much maligned plant gave off less radiation into the atmosphere than a handful of coffee beans, one of many natural substances that give off minor radiation.

The fact of the matter is that, apart from Chernobyl and its notoriously lax Soviet management, nuclear power has proved much safer and environmentally friendly than coal, oil or gas.

Not a single worker has ever been killed by a nuclear leak in Britain, unlike the tens of thousands of coal miners who were killed or disabled over the centuries. Coal tips still disfigure the landscape in scores of old mining districts – but statistics published two weeks ago show that all the atomic waste created by the British nuclear industry annually would fit into a London cab!

As a fervent supporter of the “green” movement from its foundation back in the 1960s, I have been regularly vilified for these views. Now, people with much greater influence have joined the pro-nuclear club. Welcome aboard, chaps: with luck, you might get this Government to think again – and save the Yorkshire Dales landscape from death by turbine and pylon.

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