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Dismay over Nuclear 'Solution' to Climate Problem

Haider Rizvi

UNITED NATIONS - The UN's experts on climate change are facing the wrath of many environmental groups this week for embracing the notion that additional use of nuclear power could be helpful in the fight against global warming.

Last weekend, at the end of an international meeting held in Bangkok, Thailand, the UN scientists called for governments to renew their energy policies in order to address climate change and its disastrous impact on the world's human, plant, and animal life.

The proposed new policies, according to the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), increasingly demand a significant shift from fossil-fuel-based energy sources to clean and alternative ones.

But in emphasizing this, the IPCC also suggested the world's policy makers forge ahead with more exploitation of nuclear technologies to meet the growing needs for energy consumption.

Though pleased with most of the panel's recommendations, many environmentalists seem inclined to question the international body of eminent scientists' inclusion of nuclear energy among their recommendations on clean sources of energy.

"Nuclear power threatens humans and the environment. It is not necessary to combat climate change," said Brent Blackwelder, president of Friends of the Earth, a network of environmental organizations active in more than 70 countries.

Blackwelder, whose group is at the forefront of global efforts to address various environmental concerns, including global warming and its impact on biodiversity, appears skeptical of the panel's position on nuclear energy use.

"[They] got a number of things right," he said about the IPCC's recommendations on the use of clean energy, such as wind and solar power. But, at the same time, in his view, their proposals are almost devoid of real substance.

"Their report looks like a compromise rather than a serious plan," Blackwelder added in a statement. "It offers something for everyone."

Like Blackwelder, many environmentalists contend that the use of nuclear energy is not only costly, but also has the potential to cause catastrophic accidents, such as the one that occurred in the Ukrainian region of Chernobyl in April 1986.

Last year in April, a study released by the environmental group Greenpeace International pointed out that over 250,000 cancers and nearly 100,000 life-threatening cancers were caused by the nuclear accident that took place 20 years ago.

Prior to the Greenpeace study, a report released by the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency had put the figures of possible deaths due to Chernobyl disaster-related cancers at 4,000 to 9,000.

Convinced of the accuracy of its report, which used data from the Belarus national cancer database and drew on the work of 52 scientists from around the world, Greenpeace accused the UN of trying to "whitewash" the impacts of the Chernobyl accident, considered to be the most devastating of its kind in human history.

"Denying the real implications is not only insulting to the thousands of victims, but it also leads to dangerous recommendations," said Greenpeace's Ivan Blokov about the consequences of underestimating the impact of the Chernobyl tragedy.


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Many scientists and policy experts who share such concerns have also tried to draw the world's attention to the dual nature of the use of nuclear power -- meaning it can be used to produce electricity and weapons at the same time.

Mindful that the use of nuclear technology has become a source of hostility and conflict among nations, last year in April, a group of leading European politicians called for the UN to stop promoting nuclear technology as a tool to meet the world's growing energy needs.

"Nuclear power is no longer necessary," they wrote in a letter to the former UN chief Kofi Annan. "We have now numerous renewable technologies available to guarantee the right to safe, clean, and cheap energy."

However, such calls have fallen on deaf ears, as most of the world's powerful and rich countries have not demonstrated an eagerness to address climate change from a human rights perspective. If the mood at the diplomatic negotiations at the Bangkok meeting is any sign, it is clear that most of the rich nations still view global warming as an issue of cost versus benefit.

The United States, for example, which meets 20 percent of its energy needs with nuclear technology and consumes 35 percent of the world's fossil fuel, has not signed the Kyoto Protocol or the Convention on Biodiversity, yet its diplomats have repeatedly flexed their muscles at international conferences on related issues to ensure results that they believe to be in their nation's best interests.

But the United States is not alone in supporting continued dependence on nuclear and fossil fuels. In fact, those who sit at the high table at the G8 group of industrialized countries hold similar views on what they call "global energy security."

The G8 includes the United States, Britain, France, Italy, Canada, Germany, Japan, and Russia.

Last year in April, the G8 countries not only agreed to embrace an energy plan that favored continued reliance on oil and other fossil fuels, but also released a joint statement pledging to spend billions of dollars to explore more oil reserves.

Despite strong objections from environmentalists, at the summit, the leaders also made it clear that they held consensus on the increased use of nuclear power and declared it as one of the ways to address global climate change.

That was, perhaps, an earlier indication as to how the powerful industrial nations were going to influence the UN climate change debate and the panel's recommendations to the world community.

In the words of Friends of the Earth's Blackwelder, "that's a wrong direction."

But looking at the meetings of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, which are taking place in New York this week, wrong or right, that is the direction the world community has chosen for itself.

The debate is mostly focused on the issue of energy, but no dramatic change seems imminent. As one Asian diplomat told OneWorld, "the traditional North-South divide remains evident. While developing countries are asking for new and additional financial resources and transfer of technology, the European Union and the United States continue to avoid any commitments."

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