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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 May, 2004, 15:58 GMT 16:58 UK
Father of the Gaia theory
Chapelcross power station
The price of oil continued its relentless rise to a record high, indicative of our addiction to the stuff.

If we want to prevent our burning of fossil fuels causing environmental catastrophe, we need to build lots of nuclear power stations. And we need to start doing so fast.

This is heresy for the environmental movement. But, to its intense embarrassment, the argument is not being made by the nuclear industry but by James Lovelock, father of the Gaia theory, and something of a patron saint to greens.

His argument is that the dangers of nuclear have been exaggerated, and anyway are insignificant compared to the dangers of lethal heat waves and rising sea levels.

Jeremy Paxman spoke to James Lovelock and to the editor of the Ecologist magazine, Zac Goldsmith. He began by asking Dr Lovelock why he thought that the Greens had misunderstood the Greens issue.

JAMES LOVELOCK:
I think that it relates to their history, that a lot of it grew up from CND. There was a valid reason back in the Cold War for being scared about nuclear war. It was a dreadful threat, but nuclear weapon is a different thing all together.

JEREMY PAXMAN:
Zac Goldsmith, why do you have this particular blind spot about nuclear weapon?

ZAC GOLDSMITH:
I don't see it as a blind spot. To suggest that nuclear power, is a solution to climate change is madness. I think it's almost as frightening as climate change. It's frightening across the board, but in particular, I would say on security issues. I remember a week before the planes hit the twin towers ahead of Kojima, the French nuclear industry was asked on a British radio station, what would happen if a plane hit a nuclear power plant in France? He thought for a while and he said it could not happen. It was illegal to fly planes that low over power plants, well, it's illegal to fly into buildings in New York, but it happens. I remember at the time, British Nuclear Fuels admitted they were not in a position to deal with that sort of threat. So we have to ask ourselves, what would happen if a plane hit a nuclear power plant. The fact is that depending on the winds, if we are lucky, so on, you could lose up to a third of your land mass to radiation indefinitely. That's a hell of a risk to take.

JEREMY PAXMAN:
James, try to persuade him?

JAMES LOVELOCK:
Well, I don't agree with his figures at all, but it's not really the point, how ever bad one may make nuclear out to be, it's nowhere near as bad as the threat that is facing us from global warming.

JEREMY PAXMAN:
How do you deal with the fact, Zac Goldsmith, you are talking about a theoretical risk, nonetheless it is a risk, but we know that last summer alone tens of thousands of people die, apparently as a consequence of global warming. That is something that we know has already happened?

ZAC GOLDSMITH:
I am 100% behind Dr Lovelock's thesis on climate change, his research is probably the most important research as anyone's into this, but I don't see it as a choice between climate change and nuclear power. Alternatives do exist.

JEREMY PAXMAN:
What are they?

ZAC GOLDSMITH:
Well the biggest ever study done into energy conservation was done under the Clinton administration. It showed if you spent $5 billion, which is a fraction of the cost of a nuclear power plant, $5 billion into converting half a million building in the States to energy conservation, energy efficiency, you would be saving $1.5 a year. If that was the case, and Amory Lovins and other experts, the eminent experts in energy issues, think that we could probably reduce our energy demand by four fifths with energy conservation. If you slash that figure and allow for exuberance, you still have a massively reduced energy gap, which could be realistically dealt with by a combination of solar, some more hydro winds, tidal and so on, technologies which already exist.

JEREMY PAXMAN:
James, is there an alternative to a rapid massive investment in nuclear power?

JAMES LOVELOCK:
I don't see it. I would agree with Zac, it would be well worth doing in energy conservation. Likewise, I think we should use renewables, wherever we can, but the problem is I don't see any of that producing enough of the enormous amount of energy that we use, in time. You see the threat to future generations is already established, we have done so much damage to the world that even if we stop burning fossil fuel now, at this instance, there would still be a reckoning going on for hundreds, if not for a thousands of years. So we don't have any time, really, if what one feels for future generations but to stop. I can't see how anything other than nuclear can fill in the gap quickly.

JEREMY PAXMAN:
You are singing much the same tune as the Government, which appears to have abandoned nuclear power, but equally is not acting with any dexterity or speed, on the questions of conservation. I mean, what is the alternative?

ZAC GOLDSMITH:
I think that the government is too fixated on big wind farms across the country. There will be a problem as people feel under pressure.

JAMES LOVELOCK:
Here, here, I do agree with Zac!

ZAC GOLDSMITH:
You do agree? That is good news. I think there is so many different alternatives There is a whole village next door to me in Devon which is powered by a small hydro plant which cost virtually nothing to put in place, which is now working. There are bio-mass projects which are incredibly exciting. I think we need to be more flexible, more open-minded to the various alternatives, not necessarily fixate on the huge, centralised projects, which are bound to create a lot of local opposition, some of which I have sympathy with.

JEREMY PAXMAN:
James Lovelock?

JAMES LOVELOCK:
Well, the problem that I see it is not just a matter of buildings, so on, it's swinging the public round. We saw only last year, or the year before, the petrol protest, because of sensible legislation to keep the fuel price from escalating, to keep the price of fuel rising, there was an enormous public protest. I don't think that people understand what they are up against in that one of the main jobs is going to be getting you people in the media to get the public to understand just how serious is the threat before us. I see it as very like 1938, before the Second World War, people were faffing around, talking, everybody knew there was going to be a war, but the suggests as to what should be done about it were amazingly diverse. The left were saying we should disarm, the right were saying let Hitler go like a mad dog against Russia and all will be well. We are in a similar position to that now, I think.


This transcript was produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.



WATCH AND LISTEN
Jeremy Paxman
spoke to the man who invented the environmentalist Gaia Theory, James Lovelock and to the Editor of the Ecologist magazine Zac Goldsmith.



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