JOHN HUMPHRYS: We’ll need more nuclear weapons to fight the greatest war of all


John Watson, then a Tory MP, knew he had a bit of a battle on his hands. He was addressing his audience about the benefits of nuclear power. Not an easy case to make with so many coal miners filling the chairs in front of him. 

But he felt pretty confident he could persuade them that working in a nuclear power station was far less dangerous than digging coal from deep underground.

The industry, he said, had a fine safety record. No fatal accidents and your lungs didn’t get filled with deadly coal dust. He was on a bit of a roll. Or so he thought.

We will need more nuclear power. Far more even than the giant new Hinkley Point C plant (pictured) will generate when (if) it is switched on in 2030

Then a bluff old Yorkshireman stood up.

‘Mr Watson,’ he said, ‘are you trying to tell me that nuclear is safer than coal?’

‘Yes,’ John replied, ‘that’s exactly what I’m saying.’

‘In that case, why didn’t we drop a whole load o’ coal on Hiroshima?’

That was back in the 1980s. Mr Watson left politics a few years later. The debate over the safety of nuclear power continues. But he was right then and he is right today. 

And I write this as somebody who spent his teenage years under what we all called ‘the shadow of the bomb’.

We were terrified of it. We had seen what it had done to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We knew the Soviet Union had the power to blow us all to kingdom come. 

True, we knew the United States could do the same to them. But we also knew the West’s policy was MAD. Literally. It stood for Mutually Assured Destruction. Hardly reassuring.

And I write this as somebody who spent his teenage years under what we all called ¿the shadow of the bomb¿. We were terrified of it. We had seen what it had done to Hiroshima and Nagasaki (above)

And I write this as somebody who spent his teenage years under what we all called ‘the shadow of the bomb’. We were terrified of it. We had seen what it had done to Hiroshima and Nagasaki (above)

I remember making a film for the BBC about the American ‘deterrent’. I still wince when I recall the sheer terror of sitting next to the pilot of one of the new B52 bombers as we skimmed over the hills of North Dakota at ridiculous speed, so low you could tell the colour of the sheep’s eyes.

And I will never forget the simultaneous feelings of awe and horror, standing in a deep bunker and looking up at the lethal beauty of a Minuteman missile towering above me.

In the control room, I saw the two firing buttons that could send it on its way to Moscow. They were spaced at more than the width of a man’s outstretched arms, so they couldn’t be activated by one lone madman.

The destructive power of those missiles compared with a modern nuclear weapon is that of a firecracker versus a bazooka.

So, yes, I know the world is theoretically never more than a few hours from a nuclear holocaust. It would be foolish to believe that because the worst has never happened, it never will.

Miss Lights has been campaigning on green issues since she was a child. She resigned from XR because she could no longer defend its tactics or some of its wilder claims based on no evidence. Above all, she could not accept its opposition to nuclear power

Miss Lights has been campaigning on green issues since she was a child. She resigned from XR because she could no longer defend its tactics or some of its wilder claims based on no evidence. Above all, she could not accept its opposition to nuclear power

But it is also foolish to allow the fear of nuclear weapons to colour our attitude to nuclear energy. One might be necessary to deter a reckless enemy. The other might prove crucial in a battle that is already under way: the one to save our planet from the horror of uncontrolled global warming.

Which is why I found myself nodding in approval when I read the words of Zion Lights in this newspaper on Thursday. 

She had been the chief spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion, the organisation that ludicrously decided the best way to inform the public of the dangers of climate change was to deny people the chance to read about it in their newspapers — hence some 60,000 regular Mail readers were unable to get their copy of the paper last Saturday.

Miss Lights has been campaigning on green issues since she was a child. She resigned from XR because she could no longer defend its tactics or some of its wilder claims based on no evidence. Above all, she could not accept its opposition to nuclear power.

She is one of a growing number of environmentalists who have come, usually reluctantly, to the conclusion that it is a vital weapon in the fight against climate change.

The first to break ranks was Professor James Lovelock, the creator of the Gaia theory that the Earth is a self-regulating organism and a hero to environmentalists around the world. 

He caused a sensation when he pronounced that ‘only nuclear energy can now halt global warming’. That was in 2004. Since then, many leading greens have abandoned their opposition to nuclear power too.

What they are not saying is that we don’t need renewable energy. Wind and solar power are playing an increasingly vital part.

There have been days in this country when all our electricity has come from sun or wind. But the sun doesn’t always shine, the wind doesn’t always blow and we still don’t have the technology for storing enough energy to keep the lights on. Nor can we continue to rely so heavily on importing natural gas from abroad.

No one is saying nuclear power is without its risks. But we have learned a lot since Chernobyl. The last serious accident was nearly ten years ago, when a tsunami wrecked the nuclear plant at Fukushima in Japan. 

Nuclear power is not just about keeping the lights on. It is about the future of our children and grandchildren. And theirs

Nuclear power is not just about keeping the lights on. It is about the future of our children and grandchildren. And theirs

Some 2,000 people died in the chaotic emergency evacuation. Not a single death from radiation was recorded. Not then, nor since.

Nobody knows how many will die from uncontrolled global warming. What we do know is that it is beginning to run out of control. 

When the world came together in Kyoto in 1997 to agree on a battle plan, there was hope that we might finally begin to reduce the amount of carbon we release into the atmosphere. The opposite has happened.

More carbon has been emitted as a result of human activity since 1990 than in the entire previous era since the start of the Industrial Revolution.

A vast proportion is produced in generating electricity. And we will need massively more in this country when petrol and diesel cars are banned only 20 years from now.

Which means we will need more nuclear power. Far more even than the giant new Hinkley Point C plant will generate when (if) it is switched on in 2030. And the Government has made an almighty mess of its nuclear policy.

As Alex Brummer pointed out in these pages, in a few short months two Japanese firms, Toshiba and Hitachi, have pulled out of contracts to build new plants in Cumbria and on Anglesey. And there are no more in the pipeline.

Lord knows, this Government is very good at declaring emergencies. But it’s about time it recognised that global warming is on another scale, even compared with a nasty virus.

Nuclear power is not just about keeping the lights on. It is about the future of our children and grandchildren. And theirs.

A professor at Imperial College London has just won one of the most prestigious prizes in mathematics. It’s worth $3 million.

He has worked out how a spoon moves when it is stirring a cup of tea.

Yes, yes . . . I know you could have told them that. You’ve seen it often enough. And your explanation probably would not have taken up 180 pages of impenetrable equations. 

But this is the world-renowned Breakthrough Prize we’re talking about, and you’ll just have to take the judges’ word for it that nobody had ever been able to use equations to prove it until Professor Sir Martin Hairer produced his solution.

Indeed, I’m willing to bet that, unlike Sir Martin, you are not an expert in the theory of ‘regularity structures in stochastic partial differential equations’. I reckon my money is safe.

But if he can tell us how a spoon moves when it’s stirring a cuppa, my suggestion is that the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, should call him in for a bit of guidance on his latest barmy proposals for how many relatives we can invite round to share that cuppa — and maybe even a slice of Madeira cake too. Should be a doddle.

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