Page last updated at 23:48 GMT, Wednesday, 14 April 2010 00:48 UK

Harrabin's Notes: Nuclear summit's ripple effect

In his regular column, BBC environment analyst Roger Harrabin looks at how the nuclear summit in Washington DC could affect public perceptions of nuclear power.

Nuclear security summit (Getty)
Will the terrorist concern play into the politics of nuclear power?

President Obama's nuclear security summit in Washington DC has thrown a little-discussed issue into the headlines. While it's there we might ponder more deeply on our relationship with radioactivity.

Because President Obama's warning that a terrorist attack with stolen nuclear material is the greatest threat to humanity sits a little uneasily alongside the assertion from the former UK chief scientist David King that climate change is our biggest threat - necessitating a global drive towards nuclear power.

King's imperative means we will need much more nuclear fuel round the world, whilst ensuring much improved security for the products of that fuel in order to to sustain public confidence.

The Obama summit resolved to lock down nuclear material, particularly from old weapons. But the publicity for the project may perversely increase fears about nuclear by catapulting a new risk into the headlines when scientists were beginning to succeed in assuaging fears about the previous identified risk - disposal of nuclear waste.

It would be surprising if this nuclear terrorist concern did not eventually play into the public politics of nuclear power.

Imagine if terrorists managed to use a nuclear device against a major city: How would this affect the fragile public acceptance in countries like the UK that nuclear is (in some people's minds) a necessary evil?

There is, of course, a big difference between the fuel used for most nuclear power stations and highly-enriched weapons-grade uranium.

But in public discourse it's often hard to make such distinctions, and, anyway, the authorities are nervous of the panic and disruption that would ensue from even a terrorist dirty bomb tainted with low-level nuclear waste.

And it's not just deliberate acts of terrorism that nuclear planners might fear. The emerging nuclear pact between public and people would surely also be strained by a nuclear accident anywhere in the world, whether terrorists were involved or not.

Nuclear is relatively low down in terms of deaths per kilowatt hour - particularly compared with coal, which is dangerous for people who mine it or inhale its combustion gases.

And at the moment, countries are racing to place orders for nuclear power stations because there's not remotely enough capacity to meet demand - a problem that so far has attracted little public discussion.

But the more nuclear stations the world builds, the greater the statistical risk of an accident.

Say, hypothetically, that the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown happened tomorrow: China would probably press ahead with its nuclear programme and France - with its massive dependency on nuclear - would probably be undeterred.

But the incident would doubtless fuel latent public mistrust of nuclear power in democracies like the UK or the US.

And the risk of an accident will surely increase as nuclear power expands into developing countries without a long-standing industrial safety culture (this is the implication of the global energy strategy advanced by the low-carbon energy consensus, unless rich nations aspire to rule which countries are fit to generate nuclear power and which are not).

I am not making the case that nuclear is unsafe or undesirable - that is a question for individuals and politicians to decide.

I am making the case that these other issues - the policy risk from a nuclear accident, the moral hazard of denying unstable countries the power that Western governments think necessary, and the lack of nuclear manufacturing capacity require attention as well as the scary issue of nuclear terrorism.

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