Sunday, 11 December 2011
Taking the long nuclear view
MY Aunt Lorna turned 96 this week.
I’m not in the habit of marking family birthdays – even within the family, never mind in print – but this one seems worth mentioning.
Not just because there aren’t many people left who were born before the Battle of the Somme, but because Lorna Arnold remains a passionate, powerful intellect. A woman of unsurpassed knowledge in her field who is still well worth listening to.
Not least here in Suffolk, where the Sizewell power stations generate as much controversy as electricity.
You may have seen Lorna on television. She turns up quite frequently in documentaries about the Cold War, the nuclear industry or the atom-bomb. She featured in last year’s fascinating BBC4 series The Secret Life of the National Grid.
You are perhaps more likely to have seen her, fleetingly, last March when The One Show discussed the catastrophe at Fukushima.
It’s fair to say that after leading a long, fairly secret life of her own, Dr Lorna Arnold OBE has become in her 80s and 90s a talking head, one of TV’s go-to experts.
After early experience in the War Office – she was the first British woman to enter Berlin with the Allied Control Commission after the German surrender in 1945 – and the Diplomatic Corps in Washington, in 1959 she joined the UK Atomic Energy Authority. She was appointed to the authority’s historical department in 1967 and went on to become the official historian of British atomic power.
She has written books on British atomic policy, on nuclear testing in Australia, on the H-Bomb and on the 1957 Windscale fire. Recently she has been engaged in writing her memoirs.
It’s doubtful whether anyone knows more about the history of the nuclear industry, and its production of both power and weapons.
And like many of the scientists she has worked alongside over more than 50 years, she has changed her views as her knowledge has increased. And those views deserve and demand respect.
More than respect, indeed. Her experience is valuable – vital – never more important than now, with the whole future of energy production once again in the melting-pot.
And with enough nuclear weaponry still out there to make the world uninhabitable for a long time to come if anyone should start throwing it around.
Here, from a short series of new films made by Oxford production company TalkWorks, are a few of the things she has to say:
ON NUCLEAR WEAPONS
“I think nuclear weapons are a somewhat overlooked danger today.
“We went through a period of great public anxiety, almost panic, about the dangers of nuclear weapons during the Cold War but … you can’t maintain that level of anxiety and fear.
“You get used to it, it just becomes part of everyday life. I’m very much afraid that is when things become dangerous.
“It also becomes dangerous when you have decision-makers who are not experienced, who don’t understand what they are dealing with.
“I felt much safer when we had ministers like Heath and Healey in the government because they knew about war from first-hand experience and behaved accordingly. But [today’s politicians] do not know what they are dealing with, and that is a very dangerous situation.”
ON NUCLEAR ENERGY
“At the time I joined the UKAEA, civil nuclear power seemed to be a great new future for mankind, a wonderful source of clean, efficient power which would be – as Churchill said – a perennial fountain of world prosperity.
“It was an exciting and most hopeful time. An enormous amount of skill, hard work, enthusiasm and money contributed to this great project.
“Unfortunately, as time has gone on it has been shown that though nuclear energy has been in many ways efficient and has provided up to 25 per cent of Britain’s electricity, it has been a very expensive method of generation.
“It has a great many unforeseen problems and dangers.
“The problems of nuclear waste are still not solved.
“Nuclear accidents, though rare, if they occur can be devastating.
“The rich sources of the raw material, uranium, are pretty well worked out. It is becoming a scarce and very expensive resource because of the difficulty of mining and refining it.
“It is quite possible that if many countries wanted to develop nuclear programmes, there is only about enough economic uranium in the world to fuel one more generation of power stations.
“So there is not much future, as far as I can see, in civil nuclear power.
“One sad effect of the concentration on civil nuclear power has been the neglect of research and development in renewables.
“I think on the whole civil nuclear power was a very interesting, very valuable but very limited option.
“I think it is drawing to its end and something new has got to be found in its place.”