In the space of two days I’ve been faced with the idea that nuclear energy should be a priority — either long-term, or as a stop-gap.
The first instance came after Church on Sunday night, when a friend of mine made the mistake of engaging me in conversation about my work — and forging ahead even when he realized what he was getting into. I was gentle on him at first, letting him guide the conversation rather than battering him with almost a decade’s worth of covering clean technology and environmental politics. His basic idea was that nuclear made the most sense in a world where fossil fuels were bad for the planet and renewables weren’t sustainable.
The reality was that my friend had not encountered much in the way of education about renewable energy, which had therefore biased him towards nuclear.
His view was a naive one, based on very little information.
The second instance I encountered a position in favor of nuclear was reading an article on Business Green, a guest post written by Energy for Humanity’s co-founder Kirsty Gogan. Energy for Humanity is a pro-nuclear non-profit organization, and in reading this article I was once again confronted with this relatively unpopular idea — unpopular in the circles I run in, at least.
Cogan bases her argument in a new arena — that of conservation, asking the blatantly contentious question, “How many species are we willing to lose?”
Which, once again, is a naive assumption to make — however, unlike my friend, this is willful naivety.
Nuclear is not a Black and White Issue
The number one mistake proponents of nuclear make when pushing their particular point of view is making it a black and white issue — nuclear is good; nuclear is clean energy; nuclear can replace coal; and the latest, nuclear can save species.
However, as with most of life, the issue is not so clearly black and white.
Kirsty Cogan refers to a recently published paper from the journal Conservation Biology Journal. The authors, Barry W. Brook and Corey J. A. Bradshaw, ranked seven major energy sources (coal, gas, nuclear, biomass, hydro, wind, and solar) “based on costs and benefits and tested the sensitivity of the rankings to biases stemming from contrasting philosophical ideas.”
Their findings were that, “irrespective of weightings, nuclear and wind energy had the highest benefit-to-cost ratio.”
However, the authors make a similar naive mistake in attributing nuclear a black and white definition. In conclusion, the authors write the following:
We conclude that large-scale nuclear power—as a route to an electrified, oil-, gas- and coal-free economy—offers a positive way forward because it provides a low-risk pathway to eliminating the fossil-fuel dependencies, global energy poverty, and wealth imbalances that rank among the major forces driving today’s biodiversity crisis. At the very least, nuclear power needs to be considered seriously, alongside renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar power, in any robust sustainable energy mix for the future.
While the authors are correct that nuclear could be a beneficial means to immediately reducing our dependency on fossil fuels, it has very little ability to affect “global energy poverty, and wealth imbalances.”
Coal and Nuclear, dissimilar, and similar
Late in 2014, Frank Clement, PhD, wrote that “coal is essential to meet the scale of Africa’s desperate need for electricity” and promptly labelled renewable proponents as “liberal elitists” because we are willing to so easily sacrifice Africa in favor of renewable energy.
The argument is absurd, of course, but for more than the sheer idiocy of making it aloud.
Many proponents of coal — especially those proposing to use coal to reach rural communities — completely forget that coal is absolutely reliant upon an existing energy grid able to transfer energy across the country — infrastructure that is inherently lacking in the word “rural.” While there are countries in Africa with rich coal deposits, there are very few energy grids capable of covering the entire population of a country, let alone the continent. (Let’s not also forget that, for much of Africa, further infrastructure — such as roads — are also missing, meaning that transporting coal to those countries that need it is also problematic.)
Nuclear suffers the same problem, in that a massive energy grid infrastructure is necessary to deliver energy. Unless small portable nuclear power plants have recently been invented without my knowledge, nuclear has no more role in supplying energy to rural areas than coal does — and assuredly not more than renewable energy, which has the potential to be generated at the site it is needed, something neither coal nor nuclear is capable of.
Invest in Nuclear or Renewables?
Kirsty Cogan continued to argue for renewables, stating that “it is essential to weigh nuclear risks against the risks posed by continued use of fossil fuels.”
Now to be clear, both Kirsty and I are both more than willing to admit that nuclear has potentially fatal risks — the nuclear issues suffered at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear station in 2011 being the most recently recognisable of these near-catastrophes.
However, Cogan again makes it a black and white issue when she says that there are only two options — coal or nuclear. According to Cogan, renewables simply do not hold any potential to stave off the immediate issues — there is a necessary stop-gap.
Rather than block nuclear, it is vital to invest efforts in accelerating the development of smarter, cleaner, safer nuclear plants that use long lived radioactive waste as fuel, cannot meltdown, are proliferation resistant, and can be mass produced to drive down cost. These designs do exist but need commercial development.
However, if these “safer nuclear plants” require “commercial development,” then why not invest that same money in non-potentially risky renewable energy — such as wind, for as we have seen, it ranked similarly with nuclear as having the “highest benefit-to-cost ratio.”
Can Renewables Get The Job Done?
Cogan completes her piece by quoting a recent open letter signed by “75 of the world’s most famous conservation academics.” The letter, published on the aforementioned Barry W. Brook’s website, Brave New Climate, is the worst kind of academic hyperbole.
As conservation scientists concerned with global depletion of biodiversity and the degradation of the human life-support system this entails, we, the co-signed, support the broad conclusions drawn in the article ‘Key role for nuclear energy in global biodiversity conservation‘ published in Conservation Biology (Brook & Bradshaw 2014).
Well, you’d better damn well hope so — it’s your website, and you wrote the paper.
The open letter (presumably written by Brooks and Bradshaw, despite being written in the third-person) supports the idea of nuclear power playing “a substantial role … as part of a range of sustainable energy technologies that also includes appropriate use of renewables, energy storage, and energy efficiency” — which sounds for all the world as if the nuclear industry as a whole is more than willing to offer renewable energy its crusts.
“Given the historical antagonism towards nuclear energy amongst the environmental community, we accept that this stands as a controversial position,” they write, once more the ill-treated step-child, forced time and again to sweep the kitchen out while its siblings and parents go to the beautiful ball.
However, much as leading climate scientists have recently advocated the development of safe, next-generation nuclear energy systems to combat global climate change (Caldeira et al. 2013), we entreat the conservation and environmental community to weigh up the pros and cons of different energy sources using objective evidence and pragmatic trade-offs, rather than simply relying on idealistic perceptions of what is ‘green’.
Because, until now, renewable energy proponents have simply been dismissing nuclear because of some vague idealistic notions we had about Chernobyl.
Although renewable energy sources like wind and solar will likely make increasing contributions to future energy production, these technology options face real-world problems of scalability, cost, material and land use, meaning that it is too risky to rely on them as the only alternatives to fossil fuels. Nuclear power—being by far the most compact and energy-dense of sources—could also make a major, and perhaps leading, contribution.
And at this point, I stopped and wondered what information these conservation scientists have been reading lately. Putting aside for the moment the already-addressed issues of infrastructure necessary to transport your ever-so “compact and energy-dense” nuclear energy, the apparent ‘fact’ that renewables are “too risky to rely on” comes as a bit of a surprise.
Without belaboring the point, Scotland seems to be doing all right, with its renewable energy capacity repeatedly generating more than enough in a month to power all households in the country. Across the world, 2014 was a significant year for wind development, installing over 51 GW of new wind energy in 2014, up 44% and acting as a “solid sign of the recovery of the industry after a rough patch in the past few years.”
“Wind power is the most competitive way of adding new power generation capacity to the grid in a rapidly increasing number of markets around the world, even when competing against heavily subsidized incumbents,” said Steve Sawyer, GWEC Secretary General.
If you take away the political uncertainty surrounding wind energy in country’s like the United States, Australia, and several countries in the EU, the investment dollars needed to make “safer nuclear power plants” can be used to develop cleaner, more economically viable, and publicly acceptable energy.
I am more than willing to respect the notion that nuclear energy may need to play a part in the future energy mix — especially if we are to quickly divest ourselves of fossil fuel generation. I respect the opinions of Kirsty Cogan, Barry W. Brook and Corey J. A. Bradshaw, and the 75 academics who signed the open letter, and all those who are willing to acknowledge the need for a change in our energy generating techniques.
However, as always, I am not willing to respect those who push incorrect, incomplete, or incendiary opinions as facts.
Nuclear can and maybe should play a part in the future, but to so easily and childishly dismiss renewable energy in favor of one of the most potentially dangerous and fatal energy generation methods — one that comes with absolutely no feasible waste-disposal method and has no immediate or even short-term impact on global energy poverty or wealth balance — based solely on lazy assumptions and assertions that “it’s simply better” is the height of arrogance and intellectual bias.
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