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Climate change and the need for governments to take action


Climate change and nuclear energy
Aaron Klug Scientist
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Global warming was in my own mind, not least because nothing much had happened, except the publication of a book by John Houghton, who was with a Government Commission on Pollution which involved carbon dioxide, it really was a mixed bag. Later on, this was inherited by... the crystallographer who used to be at Birkbeck... never mind. So there were already... there was some progress in it, but I did take it up again and this happened over a period of years and I set up a committee with the support of Eric Ash who was the Rector of Imperial College to go into climate change. Now, this was quite a... this was now ten years after our pamphlet on the greenhouse effect to have another look at it. And... this one was more specific. It was first of all... to make sure that there was a man-made contribution, to check that, and also what could be done about that. And so, in the end, we produced a pamphlet called, Nuclear energy – the future climate. And the people on it... among the people on it were Mary Archer, who was then a visiting professor at Imperial College, because she's a physical chemist, and with an interest in energy, but I did get... invited somebody from France who was recommended to me, a member of the French Atomic Energy Commission, a physicist, but I knew by this time that France had 78% of its energy coming from nuclear... of its electricity came from nuclear energy and that there had been no adverse incidents. But of course, during this time there had been Five Mile... no, what's the word? Three Mile Island and Jane Fonda and things of that sort. Well... Jane Fonda, she made it her cause. Had she not at all... 'Hanoi Jane' she was called, you remember she went to Hanoi on the side of the Vietnamese. She's around publicising her book now, she's written her life story. She's invited the Royal Society as well, no less. Anyway, that's... so there was a strong feeling against it.

In the meantime, of course, there had been debates about this, and the Friends of the Earth, and Greenpeace, and people opposed this. So this committee had this Frenchman on it. He told us there had been no safety problems. Chernobyl, you see, had happened in... now what was the year that Chernobyl happened, when the Russian reactor blew up and spread this trail of devastation and made, created lots of leukaemia, lots of disease? He said this need never had happened because the Russians built their power stations on the cheap. What they do in France is that they build a concrete platform over the power station, a very deep concrete platform, so if something goes wrong, it's contained within the facility, whereas the Russians didn't have this, so this trail of devastation spread all the way for thousands of miles, the winds took it. But that was the biggest factor. The other factor there was to deal with the disposal of nuclear waste which still hasn't been solved. But we argued that... you know, because in the States there's no problem because you've got deep mines, you can bury them in Nevada, there's lots of spaces. But in England it's rather strapped. France has no problem, because they have got the whole south of France which is pretty well empty and what they believe to be stable geological formations which you have to put it in, because you have to work on a time scale of thousands of years. So what's done in Britain is to put the radioactive waste into... freeze them into, make them into... solidify them into large blocks... and sometimes you can re-process them as well. If you remember, there was a fuss about sending them to Japan. So the ground wasn't all that fruitful, because of nuclear waste, but we did have a committee on disposal of nuclear waste which recommended there was certain places in Britain where they thought was geologically safe where you could deposit these things. That was questioned by some people and was never pursued further than that. In the meantime, the waste is just accumulating, so that is the serious problem. But the view we took is that when you come to public policy you can't always do the best thing, but sometimes you do the least worst thing. There's a word for it, and people who write sociology books... I've forgotten what it is, but there's a word for doing the least worst thing, but that's what I call it in plain English. Which would be to use nuclear energy, and the other, so what we proposed in that document was there would be a carbon tax. In other words, countries would be charged according to the amount of carbon they put into the atmosphere, so many million tons of carbon a year. Of course, the Americans are the most... they are responsible for 20% of the production of carbon dioxide in the whole world.

Born in Lithuania, Aaron Klug (1926-2018) was a British chemist and biophysicist. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1982 for developments in electron microscopy and his work on complexes of nucleic acids and proteins. He studied crystallography at the University of Cape Town before moving to England, completing his doctorate in 1953 at Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1981, he was awarded the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize from Columbia University. His long and influential career led to a knighthood in 1988. He was also elected President of the Royal Society, and served there from 1995-2000.

Listeners: John Finch Ken Holmes

John Finch is a retired member of staff of the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK. He began research as a PhD student of Rosalind Franklin's at Birkbeck College, London in 1955 studying the structure of small viruses by x-ray diffraction. He came to Cambridge as part of Aaron Klug's team in 1962 and has continued with the structural study of viruses and other nucleoproteins such as chromatin, using both x-rays and electron microscopy.

Kenneth Holmes was born in London in 1934 and attended schools in Chiswick. He obtained his BA at St Johns College, Cambridge. He obtained his PhD at Birkbeck College, London working on the structure of tobacco mosaic virus with Rosalind Franklin and Aaron Klug. After a post-doc at Childrens' Hospital, Boston, where he started to work on muscle structure, he joined to the newly opened Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge where he stayed for six years. He worked with Aaron Klug on virus structure and with Hugh Huxley on muscle. He then moved to Heidelberg to open the Department of Biophysics at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research where he remained as director until his retirement. During this time he completed the structure of tobacco mosaic virus and solved the structures of a number of protein molecules including the structure of the muscle protein actin and the actin filament. Recently he has worked on the molecular mechanism of muscle contraction. He also initiated the use of synchrotron radiation as a source for X-ray diffraction and founded the EMBL outstation at DESY Hamburg. He was elected to the Royal Society in 1981 and is a member of a number of scientific academies.

Tags: Nuclear energy – the future climate, Three Mile Island, Greenpeace, Chernobyl, John Houghton, Eric Ash, Mary Archer, Jane Fonda

Duration: 5 minutes, 50 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008