Nuclear Power or Fossil Fuels?, Revisited

More than two years ago I wrote here a piece about nuclear power. I critisized in it a commentary authored by Bjorn Lomborg, who argued that nuclear power is the all-environmentally friendly energy source. Then, I replicated a “green dogma” and wrote that

first, we cannot but abandon both [nuclear power AND fossil fuels], and, secondly, it is not necessarily true that we cannot afford a switch to renewables.

I do not longer think this is true. While still not sharing Lomborg’s and others’ enthusiasm about nuclear fission, I view it as the lesser evil.

The opposition of nuclear power is on of the environmentalist movement’s main dogmas. As member of a well-known organisation I shared the dogmas, also in this blog. But with time I have been confronted with many arguments in favour of or at least against the fierce opposition of both nuclear power and genetically engineered crops – arguments I couldn’t easily counter and dismiss. I also found out that some of the “facts” I myself had used in arguing against both technologies are wrong, others being right, but allowing for different interpretations. So, today I would like to briefly discuss why I no longer oppose nuclear power and, indeed, view it as an important factor in our struggle against anthropogenic climate change.

To be clear – I do not claim that nuclear power is safe. To say that after Tchernobyl and Fukushima would be just wrong and utterly cynical. So, it is not safe in an absolute sense. But I still do think that it is safe enough. Indeed, over some 50 years of commercial use of nuclear fission, only a handful of major accidents happened. Meanwhile, the technology has been improved. There are no Tchernobyl-like reactors out there any more. Indeed, Fukushima has paradoxically shown that we have made a huge step forward with regard to safety, as impressively argued by George Monbiot. While this was truly a major accident and many people had to be evacuated, no-one died. Also, the radiation has been far lower than in Tchernobyl. All this despite the admittedly wrong reactions by Tepco and the Japanese government. And, in the end, even this tragedy was relatively easily avoidable if safety standards had been tighter. In the wake of Fukushima the focus on reactor safety has increased, as indicated by the large-scale wave of safety checks of EU reactors. Of course, human error is something we cannot eliminate entirely. But there is always room for making it less probable or its consequences less severe (e.g., by building higher flood-protection walls and placing emergency generators where they cannot be flooded easily). Given all this and the continued efforts to improve reactor safety, I dare to state that nuclear power is safe enough.

Furthermore, at least historically, the deployment of nuclear power for energy generation has had a net life-saving effect. As shown in a recent study by NASA scientists, the “nuke” led to avoidance of pollution from fossil fuel burning (mercury, sulfur, particles etc.), which has very detrimental effects on human health. Thus, while also having caused deaths and suffering as a result of accidents, nuclear power likely saved many more people from premature death and suffering. This balancing may seem cynical, but since there are no energy generation alternatives bare side-effects, such balancing seems appropriate. In addition to the premature deaths avoided by lowering air pollution levels, nuclear power also had the possible consequence of avoiding death of mine workers around the world. Even today people are dying in coal mines, e.g. in China.

It could be argued that uranium mining has detrimental health effects, too. This is right, although it is not true that the problems caused by uranium mining are significantly different from those caused by mining in general. Whether coal, iron, gold, tar sands oil or rare earths – mining disrupts ecosystems and is not a health-friendly activity. The scale of the problems, however, is different across the cases, uranium arguably not being amongst the most problematic ones (which are, among others, tar sands and rare earth minerals). Furthermore, due to its exceptionally high energy density, you don’t need much uranium to generate a given amount of energy. For example, to generate 100 MWh of energy you need around 2-3 kilograms of uranium, as opposed to around 100 tons of coal. Moreover, much of the uranium used in power generation comes from disposed nuclear arms (indeed, as much as 10% of U.S. electricity is produced from recycled Soviet warheads as part of the Megatons to Megawatts Program). It is a double benefit – environment is being prevented from further damages and the recycling is a contribution to nuclear disarmament, contrary to the anti-nuclear movement’s fears of proliferation.

As already mentioned, uranium has an extremely high energy density and also provides energy as so-called base load, i.e. at a constant rate. Both are strong arguments in favour of the nuke when compared with renewable energies, which are the other alternative to fossil fuels. With the exception of hydropower (which does not have much potential left and is problematic because of land-use issues), geothermal power (still a very young and expensive technology) and biomass (land-use), renewables cannot provide base load power, their output is highly variable. So far, we have not found a good solution to the storage problem. With nuclear power, we could have some more time for this search.

Energy density is an even stronger argument. While renewables are arguably environmentally friendly in general, they need a lot of space. Given the high and rising global demand for energy and the need to protect wilderness, it is an important question to ask whether wind, solar & co. can provide the needed amounts of energy while not coming into serious conflict with settlement and agriculture needs.

This problem is particularly acute in countries already relying much on nuclear power (e.g., France or Japan) and for those there population density is high (China, India, Indonesia, much of sub-Sahara Africa, Brazil). To force too much renewables upon them may be a bad idea (and, indeed, simply not possible). Since fossil fuels are not a viable option given climate change, nuclear power is all that is left.

Now, let us turn to two problems of the nuke that are most daunting from my perspective. First, of course, there is the huge problem of waste disposal. Globally, we still have no storage site for highly radioactive waste running (although the Finns are currently building one). But we need a solution to the waste problem soon, since it cannot be stored in a provisory way eternally. There are visions of a technological solution – new reactors being able to use what now is regarded nuclear waste and turn it into waste of lower radioactivity levels. But even if they become reality someday, it will take another few decades. So, the problem has not been solved yet, which is a strong argument against nuclear power.

The second problem is construction costs. If nuke is to play a significant role in replacing fossil fuels, a large number of plants would have to be built, partly also replacing old facilities. No private company can bear the costs and risks alone. In every case, government support is needed. But this may be a good thing, actually. A deep concern of the anti-nuclear movement has always been the market power of energy companies. By means of new models of state involvement in the contruction of nuclear power plants, this market power could be constrained and suppressed more easily. Nevertheless, the issue of high construction costs remains. And if there is an accident, its costs are even much higher. On the other hand, there are many governments out there who apparently think that this is still a good bargain (e.g., China or the U.S.).

As I already emphasised – I am not a friend of nuclear power. Probably it would all be easier if nuke would not provide us with some 10-15% of all electricity, globally. But it does. Given the pressures from a rapidly changing climate, fossil fuels are not an alternative. And while renewable technologies have continuously improved in recent decades, they are still far from having the potential needed to replace both nuclear power and fossil fuels, especially given that global energy demand is likely to keep rising. I may have argued else two years ago, but now I think this was naive (continuously rising global greenhouse gas emissions also have played a role). While arguably being an evil, in my eyes nuclear power is the lesser evil as compared with a nuke-free world where renewables cannot provide and fossil fuels persist.

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