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Politics

Nuclear Power

20 May 2005

Nuclear Power: Rising from the Grave?

By Gwynne Dyer

The debate is getting as heated as the planet, but it has moved on. Outside the United States, where the climate-change denial industry still trots out its few tame scientists to question the reality of global warming, it is now about the best way to cut carbon emissions fast without bringing the whole structure of industrial civilisation grinding to a halt — and the almost defunct nuclear-power industry is seizing the opportunity to make a come-back.

The early enthusiasm for nuclear power that saw several hundred big nuclear reactors built in 1955-75 died after the partial melt-down of a reactor at Three Mile Island in the United States in 1979 and the much worse disaster at Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986. Those incidents, together with the problem of what to do with thousands of tonnes of highly radioactive waste, stopped practically all new construction.

France and Japan continued to build reactors, which now supply over two-thirds of France’s electricity consumption and almost a third of Japan’s, but in most other big countries the share of nuclear power levelled out at one-fifth of total consumption or less (US 19 percent, Britain 21 percent, Russia 16 percent). Even in countries where nuclear power provided a bigger share of the total load, like Sweden (41 percent) and Germany (28 percent), anti-nuclear movements got official commitments that existing nuclear reactors would not be replaced when they reached the end of their useful lives.

But then came the panic over climate change — and nuclear power produces large amounts of electricity with zero carbon emissions. If we really are facing a global emergency on the climate front, maybe building new reactors is the least bad option to get the world through the crisis of the next generation, because “alternative” carbon-free energy sources like wind, wave, and solar power will not be enough to fill the gap if we must cut back hugely on fossil-fuel sources of power — and the crisis is real.

The scientific evidence is now overwhelming: every one of the 924 peer-reviewed articles on climate change published in the journal “Science” between 1997 and 2003 supported the claim that human activity is responsible for global warming. The urgency of curbing carbon emissions is equally beyond question: over the past million years the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has fluctuated between 200 and 300 parts per million, but in the past 150 years (since the industrial revolution) it has leaped to 380 ppm — and it is now rising at 2 ppm per year.

Last January’s report “Meeting the Climate Challenge,” produced by the Center of American Progress in the US, Britain’s Institute for Public Policy Research, and the Australia Institute, concluded that beyond 400 ppm, a global temperature rise of at least 2 degrees C (3.5 degrees F) becomes inevitable, disrupting food production, water supply and ecosystems. “Above the 2 degrees level, the risks of abrupt, accelerated or runaway climate change also increase. The risks include reaching climatic tipping points leading, for example, to the loss of the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets,…the shutdown of…the Gulf Stream, and the transformation of the planet’s forests and soils from a net sink of carbon to a net source of carbon.”

Apocalypse is arriving on a very tight schedule, since the world will reach 400 ppm in just ten years if drastic changes are not made to the ways we produce and/or consume energy. That is why even a lifelong Green like James Lovelock, the man who originated the immensely influential Gaia hypothesis, has changed his tune. “We must stop gaining energy from fossil fuels in a way that emits greenhouse gases to the air and we must do it in the next decade,” he said last March. “Carbon sequestration is a grand idea but can we achieve it in time? Clean renewable energy sounds appealing, but in practice is ruinously expensive….”

“Burning gas instead of coal also sounds good since it cuts carbon dioxide emissions in half, but in practice it may be the most dangerous energy source of all, because natural gas is 23 times as potent a greenhouse gas as CO2….I cannot see the United States or the emerging economies of China and India cutting back; soon they will be the main source of emissions….There is no sensible alternative to nuclear energy. I believe this supply of electricity will give us the chance to survive through the difficult times to come. Our civilisation is energy-intensive and we cannot turn it off without crashing.”

The debate over nuclear power is highly emotional, and Lovelock has been vilified by his former supporters for advancing such a proposal. Quicker and deeper cuts in carbon emissions could be achieved, they point out, by just reducing our use of energy for non-essential purposes. It takes three average wind-farms, for example, to make up for the carbon dioxide emitted by one jumbo jet that crosses the Atlantic twice a day.

Lovelock and other like him are actually making the political calculation that deep cuts in energy use cannot be sold to reluctant governments and consumers until we are much deeper into climate change, by which time it will be too late. Whereas pushing nuclear power, despite all its problems, will attract allies in industry and demand no sacrifices from consumers who cannot see past the end of their SUVs. It is a counsel of desperation, but they think that these are desperate times.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 9. (“France…lives”; and “The debate…day”)