The first unit of the Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant in Al-Dafrah, UAE. The nuclear plant will eventually be a giant, four-reactor complex. It is being built by a consortium led by the Korea Electric Power Corp. Photo: AFP/WAM/Abdullah Al-Junaibi
The first unit of the Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant in al-Dafrah, UAE. The nuclear plant will eventually be a giant, four-reactor complex. It is being built by a consortium led by the Korea Electric Power Corp. Photo: AFP / WAM / Abdullah Al-Junaibi

What would you rather have within a few kilometers of your home – a small wood, home to badgers, bats and birds, or a nuclear power station?

At first glance, the “choice” with which residents of the eastern English county of Suffolk are being confronted by campaigners against the expansion of a nuclear plant near the seaside village of Sizewell would appear to be a no-brainer. But the choice on offer is a false one.

The real choice is this: Would you rather have that wood, or a fighting chance of reversing the climate change that is threatening all life on Earth?

Option B is, quite clearly, the only sane choice, and one being pursued in countries from the UK to the UAE, in acknowledgment that wind and solar power can only go so far toward replacing fossil-fuel electricity generation with sustainable alternatives.

What the world needs is a mix of renewable power sources, including one that can carry on producing power when the others can’t – the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow.

Being able to store electricity would solve the problem. But despite decades of experimentation, electricity storage at scale remains an elusive dream. And so, at present, if we turn our backs on coal, oil and gas, nuclear technology offers pretty much the only solution to the puzzle of how to keep the lights on when the sun goes down and the wind drops.

The existing nuclear power station at Sizewell has been powering homes in the UK since 1966. Its first plant was decommissioned in 2006 and Sizewell B, which was connected to the national grid in 1995, will be shut down in 2035. By then, with any luck, its replacement, Sizewell C, will be up and running and generating enough electricity to power 6 million homes.

“With any luck” is a phrase that might well puzzle those charged with developing a balanced renewable energy mix in states such as Saudi Arabia, where a research-scale nuclear power plant is nearing completion, and the United Arab Emirates.

Certainly, it is not a phrase that will have entered the decision-making process at any point when it came to planning the Barakah nuclear power station in the UAE, which began supplying power this August.

It is true that the Arab Gulf states have a mountain to climb when it comes to weaning themselves off cheap and readily available oil and gas for electricity production, but they are at base camp and determined to summit sooner rather than later.

When all four reactors at Barakah are online – perhaps as soon as next year – they will meet 25% of the UAE’s electricity demand, in the process cutting up to 21 million metric tons of carbon emissions every year, equivalent to removing 3.2 million cars from the roads.

The progress in the UAE and Saudi Arabia toward a sustainable power mix will be all the swifter because it won’t be hampered by endless protests and legal challenges by the “not in my back yard” brigade.

In Western democracies, the path to doing the right thing in the face of climate change is littered with barriers thrown up by self-interested protest groups, determined to preserve their little corner regardless of the cost to the greater good.

Take the dozens of offshore wind farms that have sprung up around the British coastline, which in the third quarter of 2019 supplied 20% of the UK’s electricity and without which the country could not hope to meet its pledge to reduce all greenhouse-gas emissions to zero by 2050.

It was a fight to have them built – they “spoiled the view” from seaside towns – and that fight goes on. One of Britain’s largest wind farms is the London Array, part-owned by Abu Dhabi’s Masdar Clean Energy. With 175 turbines, it generates enough electricity to supply clean electricity to 500,000 homes.

By now, the London Array should have been powering a million homes, but in 2014 plans to double the number of turbines were scrapped in the face of objections from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). The wildlife charity was concerned that the development might, in some ill-defined way, somehow disrupt a colony of red-throated divers, a species of seabird.

At the time, the RSPB’s head of energy policy freely conceded that “climate change is the biggest long-term threat to wildlife and we need an urgent transition from fossil fuels to low-carbon renewable energy.” But, you know, just not in the red-throated diver’s back yard.

Of course, the arguments against nuclear power, bolstered by the ghosts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, popular fiction, the disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima and unfounded scare stories about links between power stations and supposed clusters of cancer, carry even more force, but are no less spurious.

Of course there are potential dangers, in both the operation of plants and the safe storage of nuclear waste, but these can be managed and are mitigated against by years of experience and the strict application of internationally agreed protocols.

Risk is everywhere. We can drown while swimming, fall from a hiking trail or be run over walking to work. We judge such risks to be worth taking in the pursuit of accomplishments without which our lives would have little meaning.

When it comes to nuclear power, however, so visceral is our fear that we view the risk through the wrong end of the telescope, and see it out of all proportion.

It is a simple fact that for any nation hoping to balance its climate books while continuing to maintain its economy, nuclear power is a vital component. Without it, the world stands no chance of slowing global warming, and that will mean the loss of the entire habitat we call Earth, for all life on Earth – including badgers, bats and birds.

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.