Nuclear and nature: the love story no one wants to tell

I love birds. My youngest daughter is named Raven, thanks to a particular fascination I have with corvids.

This week, the potential future of the great tit has been in the news, after the story broke that this distinctive bird is in danger of extinction due to the impacts of climate change. According to a new study the great tit, which has the scientific name Parus major, is at risk due to unusually warm temperatures devastating the species’ food sources.

It seems like every week another unfortunate creature is added to the endangered species list, and indeed scientists speculate that global warming could wipe out one-third of all animal and plant life by 2070. That’s a lot of life, in my daughter’s lifetime.

I’ve been a climate activist for over two decades. The story of my exit from Extinction Rebellion to campaign for nuclear energy is well known by now, but ultimately it came from the desire reflected by that group to ‘tell the truth’ about the climate emergency we are in. I care deeply about all life on this planet, and I also believe that any solutions we commit to policy must be evidence-led, rather than based on gut feelings or long-held ideologies. Climate action has been disappointingly slow for decades, and we cannot afford to waste more time by making mistakes.

Searching for science-based solutions has led me down an unexpected path. I was anti-nuclear for a long time, and did not change my mind about it overnight. It took years of thinking through arguments and considering data to shift my belief that nuclear power was bad.

It does not surprise me, then, to see the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) recently oppose the construction of the proposed Sizewell C nuclear power plant next to the Minsmere nature reserve. The RSPB claims the power station will harm wildlife, despite having no evidence to back up such an assertion, and in spite of the fact that wildlife on similar sites is doing just fine.

Map showing proximity of Dungeness power station to Bird Observatory

In fact, the Dungeness B nuclear power station, which is in Dungeness nature reserve on the south coast, is home to numerous species and rare habitats. Visitors to this area will find Dungeness Bird Observatory in the shadow of the nuclear power station, and yet this same area is also popular with the Jack Snipe, Sandwich Tern, Peregrine Falcon, Black Redstart, Kittiwake and many more diverse and rare birds. ​Ecologists have found the​ Brown Carder Bee Bombus humilis​,​ a species​ that Buglife and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust get excited about​, ​within 0.5km ​of the power station.​ People also live happily next to the power plant. Despite what the RSPB claims will come to pass if Sizewell C is built, the area around Dungeness power plant is actually teeming with life.

Source: Accessed 13 Nov 2020

Why is wildlife around nuclear power stations actually thriving?

One reason is that these sites often lead to habitat creation and increased protection, for example reptile mitigation strategies at Sizewell C when it goes ahead. I spoke to independent wildlife consultant Jonathan Cranfield about this. “Nuclear power comes with plenty of room for biodiversity, semi natural habitats and wildlife,” he told me. “The construction of Sizewell C offers significant opportunities for rewilding, habitat creation and management. It’s vital for local biodiversity gains, as it brings with it extensive ecological monitoring, plus clean and reliable power for millions of people. Several power stations around the country are in fact places that rare birds like peregrines call home.”

On its website the RSPB states that: “our campaigning is underpinned by expert analysis, practical demonstration and conservation delivery — but we campaign as vigorously as we always did to ensure the next generation can enjoy wildlife as we do.” However, their stance on nuclear power shows the opposite to be true.

Just last year the RSPB approved a gas power station on its Saltholme reserve, 100 metres from a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in Stockton. The charity appears to support gas, while opposing 30 energy projects in the UK, including onshore and offshore wind, wave and tidal projects, carbon capture storage (CCS) and nuclear.

As the planet warms, we will lose more and more species, many of them birds, unless we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions rapidly. We cannot do this without new nuclear. This is true according to the scenarios put forward by IPCC working group three, and is an argument that has already been championed by leading climate scientists, concerned conservationists, and respected environmentalists. However, current climate plans indicate that total electricity generated from nuclear power plants in the European Union is expected to fall by 19% by 2030. By clinging to irrational fears of nuclear, we are harming our planet and all of the life on it.

There’s good news. Evidence shows that nuclear is much safer than the alternatives that we currently depend upon. The Sizewell B nuclear plant, which I visited this summer for a swim, is a beautiful place that is surrounded by wildlife. It’s rare that we hear the success stories of nuclear and nature, but consider the story of the manatees in Florida that benefited from the warm water around the Crystal River nuclear plant so significantly that when the plant was decommissioned marine biologists worried that the numbers of manatees would decrease.

I have come to accept that my previous advocating for 100% renewables (something that The Green Party, which I am no longer a member of, still does) is not based on science. Germany has invested heavily in renewable technologies while phasing out its nuclear plants, but research has found that it will have the EU’s fourth most carbon intensive electricity grid by 2030. If their energy experiment had succeeded, I’d be advocating for it. But it hasn’t, and that has critical consequences for our planet.

After seeing the CEO of The Wildlife Trusts support the RSPB’s misinformed position that new nuclear “will hinder not help action on climate” and “is very carbon intensive, certainly for first few decades”, I have cancelled my membership with The Devon Wildlife Trust, informing them that I will rejoin if they choose to reconsider their unscientific position on nuclear.

We are in a climate emergency, and Sizewell C is a proposed 100-acre site that will power six million homes, in a country that is currently largely dependent on fossil fuels, including the occasional burning of coal.

Even so, making the case for nuclear is a real challenge, as there are a number of conspiracy theories against it. It is a topic that is rife with fiction rather than facts. But the real conspiracy is the misconception that so-called ‘renewables’ are the best option for the environment, as if they appear from thin air and don’t have lobbyists behind them.

It’s difficult to have a discussion about nuclear without people shouting ‘industry shill’ at me (full disclosure: I do not take money from the nuclear industry, nor have I ever done so). When my first book was published and included a chapter on vaccines, I was also called a ‘shill’ — back then, the slur was ‘Big Pharma shill’. Anti-science sentiment has since continued to grow, and instead of pushing for strong climate policies to tackle rising emissions, we are now ‘shill’-ing our way through the Anthropocene.

Back to the conspiracy: why aren’t renewables advocates called ‘industry shills’? Renewable companies make a lot of money, after all. Building renewables requires investment, mining for resources, labour (which often takes place overseas), and construction. It’s not an ethical industry, either: take a look at some of the humans rights abuses the renewables industry has been involved with, especially when it comes to Indigenous communities and land rights.

It’s also fair to say that wind and solar farms do not go hand-in-hand with rewilding projects, as they require significant land use. This is not me being biased: I am simply stating fact. For example, plans are currently underway for a 900-acre solar farm Cleve Hill in Kent, which will provide electricity for 91,000 homes. Compare this with the relatively compact size of Sizewell C (100 acres), which will serve six million homes. Rewilding needs to be part of our climate strategy, but no one wants to discuss the elephant in the room that is how much space onshore renewables require.

All of this is true, yet arguing for renewables is seen as environmentally sound, while nuclear advocacy is not.

That said, we are in a climate emergency, and the UK needs all the tools in the kit to wean off of fossil fuels and to achieve its target of attaining net zero by 2050. If environmental organisations continue to protest progress, and commit to gut-feelings and ideologies based on conspiracy theories, we will fail to succeed. As emissions continue to rise, we will continue to lose the many creatures, flora and fauna that call this planet home.

It’s time to follow the science and support nuclear power for net zero, its green credentials and its worth for nature. Else the reality is that my daughter, named Raven, will not inherit a world that is rich with myriad species. The reality is that we will fail her, and future generations, who will grow up without ever hearing the sound of the lesser spotted woodpecker in the wild. The reality is that if we don’t commit to building new nuclear to bring down our emissions as soon as possible, the health of our planet will go tits up.

Zion Lights is author of The Ultimate Guide to Green Parenting. She is a TED speaker and has an MSc in Science Communication.