Nuclear power and climate change

One of the main points of contention in the nuclear power debate is the use of nuclear power as tool to fight climate change.

On one side you have the proponents of nuclear power, who bill it as a stable, low-carbon energy source, that is available at all times of day, with minimal carbon output, high cost-efficiency and established technology.

On the other side you have the anti-nuclear movement, who say that nuclear power is a stopgap, ‘bandaid’ technology, that comes with too many health and safety risks, that is slow to build and in the end puts out as much carbon, because it takes so much industry to build the plants and store the spent fuel.

What the anti-nuclear movement would have is an immediate transition to renewable energy sources like wind, solar and geothermal, where available. The reaction of nuclear proponents is that these technologies are either restricted to certain parts of the world (like geothermal), take up far more land area than a similar capacity nuclear plant (like solar), or are intermittent and that there isn’t the technology to store captured energy (like wind and solar).

The problem is, is that there are ‘experts’ on both sides of the debate, who seem to be able to find information to support their own arguments while disproving their opponents. Also, any organisations weighing in on the debate tend to get ignored due to perceived conflicts of interest.

Even the IPCC is not above the squabbles of the nuclear debate, as outlined in this article, the position of the IPCC regarding nuclear power has varied greatly over time. In the first IPCC report, nuclear was listed as an important tool in creating a low-carbon energy system, then over then next five reports, the opinion veers away from nuclear until the most recent report, where it is again being encouraged as a pragmatic option while the technology needed to make renewables more reliable is developed. Much of this wavering seems to be related to the public opinion of nuclear power in the EU, which reflects the impact the nuclear debate can have on supposedly independent bodies.

Somehow — and I’m really not sure how — something needs to give in this debate, there needs to be some sort of consensus. While there is still all this indecision around nuclear, little work is going to be done on increasing our nuclear energy generating capacity. Maybe if both sides of the debate worked together instead, there would be progress in some direction.

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Ecomodernism and nuclear power

Ecomodernism is a environmental philosophy that can be seen as a bit of a reactionary development to the radical  philosophies of mainstream environmentalists.

Proponents of ecomodernism, like their environmentalist colleagues, fight for the reduction of the human impact on the world. However, the ecomodernist movement favours the use and development of technologies that will allow humanity to do so. By this I mean that the ecomodernists do not reject growth and technological development in the way that many ‘greenies’ do. Ecomodernism promotes the use of GMOs, agricultural intensification, synthetic foods, water desalination and waste recycling. In regards to energy production, they favour ‘de-carbonizing’ energy, by switching to high energy-density energy sources, such as nuclear power. They also reject the idea of ‘organic’ agriculture and many renewable technologies, because of their inefficient use of space.The idea of ecomodernism is that we are going to have an impact on the Earth no matter what we do, but if we can be as efficient with that impact as possible, the world will benefit in the long run.

The main point of contention this movement finds is with the ‘degrowth’ and ‘steady-state economy’ movements, which argue for a reduction in growth and technological inputs. Many challenge the ecomodern rejection of renewable energy, especially in light of their plan to ‘de-carbonize’ the energy grid. Where these criticisms seem to fall down is that they don’t take into account the aspirations of developing nations around the world. It is all very well and good to say to developed nations that they need to stop expanding and put all their energy into being ‘in tune’ with nature, but for us to tell people in a developing nation that they have to stop growing, and not use any of our technological developments seems to be a form of classism and quite paternalistic.

The ‘rational’ viewpoint of the ecomodernist movement seems to be a bit of fresh air in the environmental debate, although it is not without its valid criticisms. Maybe this is a different framing of the issue that will be more successful in convincing people who consider themselves environmentalists to be more open to the benefits of nuclear power?

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The ecomodernist manifesto: Link

Criticism of: Link

Denmark’s amazing wind energy achievement

I was sent an article on ‘Earth We are One’, about a day earlier this year where Denmark produced 140% of its energy requirements (for the day) from wind energy alone. (Link to the article)

After dropping this fact, the article mentions that this record beat a previous record of 116% of daily energy demand produced form wind energy.

What seems to have happened, is that there was a particularly windy day on the North Sea, and Denmark’s wind energy capture system was put to the test. Under this test, the system performed admirably, and Denmark was able to sell on their overproduced energy to other countries in the region (Sweden, Norway and Germany). From the article, it seems that Germany had already produced much of what it needed, so it used the energy from Denmark to raise water up, to be converted back into electricity at a later date (this is called pumped-storage hydroelectricity, and is a common answer to the “how do you store renewable energy?” question).

This really is a tremendous achievement for Denmark (another of the many energy achievements to be awarded to Scandinavia in general), and is being lauded by pro-renewable/anti-nuclear campaigners as proof that renewables can do it all.

While I agree that it’s an important demonstration of the power of wind farming, this alone is not a demonstration of the ability of renewable energy’s ability to do all of the energy generation we need. 140% is amazing, but what about all the other days where it didn’t reach 100%? What happens when you have a week of no wind at all (I know it’s unlikely, but just go with it). After that much time, surely the pumped-stored energy you have is gone, and you’ll have to turn to other forms of electricity.

I acknowledge freely that I am not an expert in electricity grid dynamics, but it seems to me this is not such a great victory, and it points to a certain willingness of the anti-nuclear movement to point at any little piece of exciting information and claim it as proof that renewables are all we need.

I would have had less of a point if this was in some alternate version of Australia where we take advantage of all the renewable resources that we have access to, with large solar arrays being more than able to cover any deficit in wind generation (as long as its a sunny day).

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Location, location, location: Why doesn’t location get talked about in the nuclear debate?

VICE’s technology arm recently posted a story called: “​How Volcanic Eruptions Threaten Nuclear Power Plants“, which details the debate going on in Japan about the proximity of some of their nuclear power plants to active volcanoes. Despite the fact that they are not close enough to be affected by actual lava or pyroclastic flows, (as reiterated by vulcanologists), these plants are close enough to be negatively affected by ash from the eruptions. This article gave me something to think about, how location affects the nuclear debate.

Volcanoes are not the only problems that Japan’s nuclear power industry faces. Japan has a lot of volcanoes because it is on the edge of what is called the ‘Ring of Fire’. The ‘Ring of Fire’ runs around the boundary of the Pacific Ocean, and is where numerous undersea tectonic plates meet with the continental tectonic plates. The result of this is that there is a lot of volcanic activity as well as lots of earthquakes.

What else comes with earthquakes though? Tsunamis. As everyone is probably aware, Japan has to deal with tsunamis at comparatively frequent rate. We only need to recall the Fukushima Daaichi disaster to see how true the fear of natural disasters affecting nuclear power plants is. To be fair, Fukushima was unlucky enough to be hit by an earthquake and then a tsunami. But it does beg the question, is it wise to build a nuclear reactor, no matter how well designed and how many precautions have been taken, in a place where these sort of natural disasters are commonplace?

Compare Japan with Australia on that map above. Australia sits right in the middle of a continental tectonic plate, and the centre of Australia is pretty much as far from the sea and large earthquakes you can get.

If Australia were to build nuclear reactors somewhere in the vast unused land area that in the middle of the outback, it is almost guaranteed (touch wood) that there would be no natural disasters that could affect it, the main issues that would remain would be dealing with the heat, getting water to the site and getting the energy back to the coast.

But this point rarely, if ever, comes up in debates. Anti-nuclear advocates are allowed to go on about the possible dangers of natural disasters (an in places like Japan, they are probably right), but the pro-nuclear side never seems to rebut this with the idea that we build somewhere where that these things are unlikely to happen.

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The pro-nuclear movement: an introduction

So far, when discussing the major players in this field, I have looked at the anti-nuclear movement, in an earlier post which charted their history, development and current status. This blog will be a bit different to that, as the pro-nuclear movement is much harder to define. Not only is there not a singular ‘pro-nuclear’ movement as there is with anti-s, there are also a lot more vested interests in nuclear technology, which confound the definition slightly.

One of the most blatant (but probably not demonstrative) differences between those that support and those that oppose nuclear is the fact that the former has a dedicated Wikipedia page:

while the latter has merely a list of environmentalists that support it:

I suppose, besides those with commercial interests, it’s hard to pin down the pro-nuclear movement because for a long time the anti-nuclear movement was the minority. There was no-need for the ‘establishment’ to directly interact with the protesters, because the majority of the public supported them. With rhetoric like Eisenhower’s ‘Atoms for Peace’ speech, most in the West were probably ambivalent or directly in support of nuclear power.

But then let’s go back to that Wikipedia page, “List of pro-nuclear environmentalists”. Now those with pro-nuclear leanings are in the opposite situation, they are the other, with the anti’s being the norm. Slate has a good article (here) that has a good discussion about the changing nature of the nuclear debate, and the problems faced by those environmentalists who take a pragmatic approach to fighting climate change [I may do a whole post on it in the future actually].

Brave New Climate has a really good blog about this very issue (here), and in it, the author talks about the fact that there is a ‘movement’ associated with the anti-nuclear position. This sense of a distinct identity and collective will is missing from the pro-nuclear side, and it seems that because of this, there will always be a louder anti-nuclear voice drowning them out. As the author notes, the pro-nuclear side is reduced to individuals talking on their soapbox and calls to reason and to ‘just run the numbers’.

The biggest difference seems to be the language used by the two groups. People who are pro-nuclear seem to be much more likely to use fact and reason-based arguments, whereas the anti-nuclear people seem to be more likely to engage in emotional arguments. I’ve put a video below of a debate hosted by TED around nuclear power. If you watch it you will see that both of the speakers start off talking calmly and attempting to use facts to persuade people. However, the anti-nuclear speaker starts to weave a bit of emotion into his presentation when talking about the threat of nuclear disaster, and when given the chance to speak again on the rebuttal of his opponent, he seems visibly emotional and he resorts to sarcastic comments and unfounded statements that don’t actually address his opponents arguments. This is not to say that pro-nuclear speakers never get emotional, it just seems that it is a much more common tactic in the anti-nuclear movement.

However, there are some similarities between these two opposing viewpoints. Like Greenpeace for the anti-nuclear movement, there are organisations like the World Nuclear Association and the Nuclear Energy Institute in the US. These bodies however, are much more corporatised than the anti-nuclear movement (probably a vestige of their activist past) and are much more involved with governmental lobbying activities rather than trying to influence public opinion. The other big similarity is that both sides have the planet’s best interests in mind, both camps are championed by environmentalists, mostly concerned with climate change.

The problem seems to be now that there is no action on either front. If either side were to “win”, at least something would change. Perhaps the best option for these two camps is for them to team up against those who would argue that nothing needs to be done.

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Nuclear vs. GMO, similar controversies?

Last night I went to an event to promote the release of a book about scientific controversies and the interaction between the scientific community and the broader public sphere.

During his speech (and I checked, it’s the same in his book), this author compared the controversies and public debates on nuclear power with the more recent controversy surround the introduction of GMOs into the food supply.

I must admit, I have a bit of a personal interest in the GMO debate, as my undergraduate degree was in plant biotechnology. So, while I am always willing to talk to and debate about GMOs, I must admit it was a little bit interesting to hear this author make such a comparison.

On the surface, the debates can look quite similar. The proponents of both industries use similar points to argue in favour of their technology: that their technology is about making a cleaner, more productive and more efficient world, with less damaging effects on the environment (controversial, I know). The opponents of both of these technologies also campaign in a similar vein, with common frames between them: ‘science gone mad’, public health risks, ‘the benefits don’t outweigh the risk’, and that science is ‘playing “God”‘. They are also both mainly public controversies, as the scientists behind the technologies have mostly resolved any doubts over the safety and efficacy of their respective technologies.

However, I think that these debates are not as similar as it might seem. While both use technologies that are seen as extremely complex and dangerous, but when you compare where they came from, they’re really different. GMO technology is just a small, logical progression from advanced breeding techniques developed over the last century, which in turn are based on breeding techniques developed since humans started farming. Contrast this with nuclear power, whose closest technological relative is probably high explosives; they are not even in the same ballpark as nuclear power, technology-wise or danger-wise.

Also, I think the most important distinction between nuclear and GMO is the fact that there has never been any documented harm to humans from GMO technologies. As previously discussed, the anti-nuclear movement has every right to play upon the danger of nuclear power, given the damage done by the few nuclear accidents there have been (not to mention all the damage done by intentional bombings and above-ground testing). To conflate Chernobyl and Hiroshima with the imagined potential harms of GMOs not only minimises the suffering of those involved in those incidents, but also negatively effects the campaign to promote GMOs, which are trying to solve many of the problems that we face in the world today.

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Also, just because it’s my pet topic, if you have any doubts about GMOs, please watch this video of Mark Lynas, a former anti-GMO activist, speaking to the Oxford Farming Conference in 2013: