Here an update Nuclear Power or Fossil Fuels?, Revisited, including a changed attitude toward the problem.
I already almost have specialized in commenting on articles by Bjørn Lomborg, the (in)famous “Skeptical Environmentalist”. Today I will do it one more time.
It is a sad true that we often have to choose between alternatives which we don’t like – deciding on what is better, not what is good. In his recent article my favourite politologist argues that we have to make a decision: do we want to rely on electricity generation from nuclear power or from fossil fuels?, since renewables are still too expensive and cannot close the gap if we would like to abandon both. As one can think, I don’t agree with Mr Lomborg – otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this post. I will argue that, first, we cannot but abandon both, and, secondly, it is not necessarily true that we cannot afford a switch to renewables.
Let’s start with the question of whether we can afford to choose. Lomborg argues that, yes, nuclear power is dangerous and rather expensive, but fossil fuels are still more dangerous. This is not quite right. To back up his claim that fossil fuels are more dangerous, he compares an estimate of the deaths due to Chernobyl disaster in 1986 with an estimate of deaths due to fine-particle outdoor air polution (caused directly by burning fossil fuels). In this comparison Chernobyl doesn’t look that bad. But there are at least two problems with it: first, the reliabality of the first estimate, and second – the fact that Lomborg picked out two possible impacts of the respective power generation alternatives, without considering any others.
There are a lot of studies questioning the methodology of the (very difficult) estimations of post-Chernobyl deaths by the WHO (quoted by Lomborg). Alternative, broader approaches arrive at estimates up to 200 times as high as these. Furthermore there is evidence that the Chernobyl meltdown had huge negative impacts on the ecosystems surrounding it. So, it is not as straightforward as Mr Lomborg seems to be believing that a nuclear meltdown causes less deaths than fossil fuel use.
Then there is the second problem: the selectivity. Of course, Chernobyl was terrible, but neither was it the only serious nuclear accident in the history, nor is a possible meltdown the only danger nuclear power imposes over people and nature (consider, e.g., the ecological damages from uranium mining or the unsolved problem of nuclear waste). On the other hand, fine-particle pollution is not the only danger from fossil fuel burning (do not forget global warming, coal mining, Deepwater Horizon etc.). The comparison chosen by Lomborg is impressive, but it tells nothing about the issue of whether we should abandon nuclear power and/or fossil fuels or not.
As I have written elsewhere, there are many other critical issues of nuclear power – not only the danger of a GAU. Our skeptical environmentalist has named some of them (but at the same time he has suggested that the waste disposal problem is solved already – have I missed something?), but in the end he concentrated on relative costs of nuclear energy (as compared with renewables and fossil fuels) and thus reached the conclusion that since we cannot afford a “fossil” future we have to keep using nuclear power – at least the power stations already built, since new ones are highly expensive. Strangely, he hasn’t added that a big part of the existing nuclear power stations are very old and will be phased out in the near future.
An important flaw of Lomborg’s argumentation, a frequent one, is the way of cost considerations. This brings us to the second point: since, as I have argued here and elsewhere, nuclear power is not the solution, and fossil fuels are the problem, the only alternative left is renewables. Mr Lomborg argues that they cannot close the gap caused by a rapid outphasing of nuclear power, and that they generally are much too expensive. Thus, his argumentation goes on, we must choose between bad and worse. But must (and can) we really?
I must admit that the outphasing of nuclear power would cause big problems in many countries (notably in France, where over 80% of electricity generation takes place in nuclear power plants). But, at the same time, I am deeply convinced that we cannot afford to keep utilizing nuclear fission as a source of energy. Abandoning it (gradually, where needed), and the simultaneous gradual transition from fossil fuels to renewables would have a cost. In monetary terms. But let me point out to two issues showing that this cost is not necessarily as huge as Lomborg and others claim.
First, the “skeptics” are considering market prices only. When you look at the price paid for 1 kWh coal vs. 1 kWh nuke vs. 1 kWh solar electricity in the market, it is clear that the latter is very expensive. But there is a huge “but”: market prices don’t necessarily express real, i.e., social costs. In the case of energy prices, they extremely underestimate the real cost. Would we account for the costs of global warming, pollution, risk of accident etc., the picture would look quite distinct. For us, as citizens, as people, it is the full social costs that should count. Not the prices generated in imperfect markets.
Secondly, a great fear is the so called “energy gap” – what if we turn off all the nuclear power stations and there is too little electricity in the grid? Then we may be forced to realize and to decide which of our energy consuming activities are really needed and which are not. A few years ago we consumed much less energy (since total energy consumption is rising) – were we less happy because of that? I don’t think so. (I am writing mainly about the richer countries – most of the developing world don’t face these problems, since they don’t use nuclear fission, with few – richer – exceptions.) See it from the other side: it would be a highly potent incentiveto seek innovations in the renewables sector. So, maybe it would be not as bad if we shut them down? No nuke and no fossil fuels, Mr Lomborg?
Related post (including a reconsideration of my own arguments): Is Nuke the Lesser Evil?