Nuclear lessons from the coronavirus

No place for atomic power amidst climate chaos and pandemics

By Linda Pentz Gunter

There is nothing like being shut in your own home, alone with your human and animal nearest-and-dearests, to focus the mind on the crises that now swirl outside.

And it is “crises” in the plural, because while all the focus is of course on the novel coronavirus, there is one giant crisis steamrollering toward us that will wreak orders of magnitude more devastation, but somehow does not merit the same kind of emergency action. And that, of course, is climate change.

Reflecting on the coronavirus pandemic from my peaceful office eyrie, with no traffic rolling past my windows and only the now audible city birdsong to distract me, it is clear how we got climate change. It is exactly the same mentality that brought us the covid crisis. Recognize a problem; assume it might just right itself; then assume it might not get as bad as predicted; then realize it’s pretty bad but do too little to stop it; then confront a crisis now impossible to adequately mitigate.

Denial seems to be one of the greatest of human achievements. It’s also why we have nuclear power. It will be too cheap to meter. An accident will never happen. We will solve the radioactive waste problem later.

Ike hits jetty CC

Storm surges and sea level rise are an inevitable risk to all coastal properties, but especially nuclear power plants. (Photo: Creative Commons)

With the climate crisis upon us, it should be patently obvious that building new nuclear power plants anywhere is not an intelligent plan. Sea level rise is a certainty, and fires, flooding, storm surges, and earthquakes are likely to increase both in frequency and force. Building power plants that contain an inventory of long-lived lethally radioactive fuel in such an environment is insane. And then to build them on shorelines, as is currently happening at Hinkley, and is threatened for similar settings at Sizewell and possibly Wylfa — all of them in the UK— is irresponsible in the extreme.

The covid-19 crisis almost certainly won’t be the last such Biblical-style plague to strike us. If we fail to learn our lesson this time around, we will be equally unprepared and again forced to quarantine ourselves and call workforces home. But while wind turbines will keep spinning and solar arrays will continue to collect sunlight without any help from us, workers cannot leave a nuclear power plant untended. Knowing this, why build an installation that cannot be safely abandoned?

The answer, of course, is money. But not the industry’s money. Ours. We are the ones who will pay to keep nuclear plants running, and to build new ones.

I recently sat in a room of 75 people — just before you couldn’t anymore — in Suffolk, England, listening to a series of eloquent presentations advocating for a halt to the proposed Sizewell C nuclear power plant there. The occasion was an event hosted by the Nuclear Free Local Authorities. The Sizewell C project, which would add two EPRs to the still operating Sizewell B reactor site, would tear through one of the richest, most preciously fragile and most diverse nature preserves in the country — Minsmere. And be built on a beach.

You can watch excerpts from those presentations here:


EDF, the French government-owned utility planning to carry out this project, insists on its website that “The proposed design of the Sizewell C buildings takes into account the sensitive nature of the surrounding environment while providing enough space to build and operate the power station safely and efficiently.” It doesn’t.

The first three speakers reminded us of the breathtaking beauty of Minsmere and the animals, insects, birds, and reptiles whose lives would be disrupted, if not ended, by the construction activities alone (my talk and the two others addressed the radiological and climate risks if Sizewell C ever became operational.) We saw slides not only of these animals, but of an exotic array of spectacular plant life that would also be lost. Site construction would dissect and disconnect habitats and frighten species away, with 24-hour lights, noise, heavy machinery, traffic and the bulldozing of their landscape. Wildness, already disappearing fast enough, would be lost.

After listening to the eloquent opening presentations from nature and sports journalist, Simon Barnes, Ben McFarland, head of conservation at Suffolk Wildlife Trust, and Rachel Fulcher of Suffolk Coastal Friends of the Earth, there was only one question to be asked: Why on earth would anyone allow this to happen? But so far, Suffolk County Council has gone alone with the plan, albeit with some caveats and ongoing questions for EDF. They may yet be dissuaded.

A video from Suffolk Coastal Friends of the Earth, narrated by Fulcher, is a quietly passionate reminder, somewhat in the style of her namesake, Rachel Carson, not to pave paradise, as Joni Mitchell once warned.

The first thing that is likely to happen is that EDF will raze Coronation Wood. It will do this, not because it needs to now. It is not even certain that Sizewell C will go ahead. It will do this for show. The show in question is to prove to the world that the French nuclear industry is alive and well. It is moving forward. 

Not content with the ghastly building site which is the Hinkley C two-reactor project in Somerset, EDF must impress upon the world that it is moving forward with Sizewell as well, which, the company boasts, it can complete even cheaper and faster.  

At the Suffolk meeting, Theberton & Eastbridge Action Group on Sizewell screened a particularly brilliant piece of video, shot from a drone, showing the spectacular Suffolk countryside today and what the hapless Somerset countryside at the Hinkley site now looks like. You can view it below.

The French government is on record as saying that without Hinkley and Sizewell, the French nuclear brand will be finished. It sees the UK projects as an essential redemptive step, given the EPR, its supposed flagship, has so far been a financial and technical shipwreck.

As the Financial Times pointed out in May 2018, “Avoiding delays in the UK will be crucial if EDF is to persuade international buyers — and its own shareholders, not least the French government — that the EPR’s teething problems are over.” 

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which owns the Minsmere reserve, has said it has concerns that “EDF energy may not be able to keep its environmental promises.”

But the organization should instead be 100 per cent certain that EDF will not keep its environmental promises or any other kind for that matter. You just have to look at the company’s track record, along with the systemic disregard by all nuclear companies anywhere in the world, for the well-being and survival of animals and their habitats, both wild and domestic. (This latter is all documented in our newest booklet — Nuclear power and harm to animals, wild and domestic.)

There is particular reason to mistrust EDF because the company has experienced an endless series of technical, safety and transparency problems at the EPR construction sites still plodding their way to incompletion at Flamanville 3 in France and Olkiluoto 3 in Finland. Even such fundamentals as the concrete pour of the reactor foundation at Flamanville 3 had to be redone. The Flamanville 3 containment came from a forge which falsified quality control data and installed counterfeit parts; the vessel head is defective. And, amidst the coronavirus outbreak, part of the workforce at Flamanville 1 and 2, both fortunately offline for maintenance, has now been called home. (An outbreak of covid-19 among its staff has also now forced the closure of the reprocessing plant at Sellafield in the UK.)

marsh harrier

The Marsh Harrier would lose its habitat to Sizewell C. (Photo: by Michael Brace for Creative Commons)

One can only hope that the decision-makers of Suffolk will wake up and smell the marsh-marigolds (I am no botanist so I can’t vouch for their actual aroma.) Or maybe amidst the silence of their now corona-forced sequestration, they will listen to the song of reed buntings, or sedge warblers and decide they are worth saving. Perhaps they will marvel at the aerobatics of the marsh harrier, or wander out at night and glimpse a rare barbastelle bat, “serrated wings against the sky, Like a glove, a black glove thrown up at the light,” as D.H. Lawrence so vividly described the animals in his poem, Bats (although Lawrence did not care for bats.)

Maybe all of us, becalmed and decelerated, will start to come to our senses. We may see climate changes for the better as we stop flying and driving and cruise-shipping and needlessly consuming, while factories are idled and our air quality improves. The wake-up call comes at a terrible price. But the bigger cost could be everything.

Headline photo: Minsmere/RSPB

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