The debate between pro- and anti-nuclear voices has been raging since the 50s both over nuclear weapons and nuclear energy. It continues to this day with some new wrinkles.
The green movement has always been staunchly anti-nuclear but in recent years there has been a growing number of environmentalists in the broadest sense who have spoken out on the need for an expansion of nuclear reactors in order to try and address climate change.
In a Previous Post on THE GENERALIST [Nuclear: The Big Sell, The Big Worry/Tuesday, June 14, 2005] I highlighted the coming-out of Jim Lovelock (author of Gaia) in a front-page Opinion piece in The Independent [23rd May 2004] in which he advocated a massive expansion of nuclear power as the only sensible green solution to climate change. The story was presented as if an environmentalist had turned pro-nuclear; in fact, as I have written elsewhere, Lovelock was always pro-nuclear.
The rebuttal came on the 26th June when the Independent published Nuclear Power 'Can't Stop Climate Change' by Geoffrey Lean which contradicted Lovelock's position:
'Nuclear power cannot solve global warming, the international body set up to promote atomic energy admits today. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which exists to spread the peaceful use of the atom, reveals in a new report that it could not grow fast enough over the next decades to slow climate change - even under the most favorable circumstances. The report - published to celebrate yesterday's 50th anniversary of nuclear power - contradicts a recent surge of support for the atom as the answer to global warming.'
I set out to find out where we are with this new technology. In a Jan 2014 piece in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists entitled 'Are small nuclear reactors the answer?' by
Kennette Benedict, she concludes:
In the realm of nuclear technology, however, the enormous expense required to launch a new model as well as the built-in dangers of nuclear fission require a more straightforward relationship between problem and solution. Small modular nuclear reactors may be attractive, but they will not, in themselves, offer satisfactory solutions to the most pressing problems of nuclear energy: high cost, safety, and weapons proliferation.
In a piece in The Guardian, Damian Carrington reports that Osborne is going for it.
[George Osborne puts UK at the heart of global race for mini-nuclear reactors /Tuesday 24 November 2015]
The UK could be the global centre of a new nuclear industry in mini-reactors that are trucked into a town near you to provide your hot water, or shipped to any country that wants to plug them into their electricity grid from the dock.
The chancellor, George Osborne, revealed on Wednesday that at least £250m will be spent by 2020 on an “ambitious” programme to “position the UK as a global leader in innovative nuclear technologies”.
Here is the World Nuclear Association's up-to-date (Dec 2015) summary of the global situation: Small Nuclear Power Reactors.
Next came George Monbiot, hi-profile environmental writer for The Guardian, in an article entitled 'Why Fukushima made me stop worrying and love nuclear power' [21 March 2011]
This was countered in The Guardian by Craig Bennett in his piece Fukushima shows us the real cost of nuclear power (23 March 2011).
More recently, Crispin Tickell writes a substantial rebuttal, again in The Guardian entitled
Does the world need nuclear power to solve the climate crisis? (20 August 2012) which reads in part:
Most recently, another Guardian piece 'Nuclear power paves the only viable path forward on climate change' (3 Dec 2015)written by four senior atmospheric scientists James Hansen, Kerry Emanuel, Ken Caldeira and Tom Wigley. The subhead reads:'To solve the climate problem, policy must be based on facts and not prejudice. Alongside renewables, nuclear will make the difference between the world missing crucial climate targets or achieving them.'So this is the question: does the world need nuclear power for us to solve the climate crisis, as Monbiot claims? To borrow a second thought, this time from Margaret Thatcher, must we accept that there is no alternative?Let's look at the figures. In 2010 the world demand for primary energy was equivalent to 12,000 million tonnes of oil (Mtoe), 87% of which was provided by oil, gas and coal. Nuclear power contributed a gross 626 Mtoe, about 5% of the total, while renewables accounted for 935 Mtoe, almost 8%.To solve the climate problem, the world must not only reverse the trend of increasing carbon emissions over the next few decades, but bring them down to less than they are now. So can nuclear power do it? Assume a 2% growth in primary energy demand per year over the next 35 years, and that demand will double to some 24,000 Mtoe. Rely on nuclear power to accommodate all the growth, and knock out 4,000 Mtoe-worth of coal, and it will have to produce 16,000 Mtoe of energy per year – a 25-fold increase on its current level.Today the world has 440 operational nuclear reactors, so 25 times more means 11,000 reactors. To have these in 35 years means building, on average, about one a day. Or in an exponential growth scenario, the world would need to sustain an annual increase of 8% per year in the number of operational nuclear reactors for 35 years.
The piece concludes:
The climate issue is too important for us to delude ourselves with wishful thinking. Throwing tools such as nuclear out of the box constrains humanity’s options and makes climate mitigation more likely to fail. We urge an all-of-the-above approach that includes increased investment in renewables combined with an accelerated deployment of new nuclear reactors.
For example, a build rate of 61 new reactors per year could entirely replace current fossil fuel electricity generation by 2050. Accounting for increased global electricity demand driven by population growth and development in poorer countries, which would add another 54 reactors per year, this makes a total requirement of 115 reactors per year to 2050 to entirely decarbonise the global electricity system in this illustrative scenario. We know that this is technically achievable because France and Sweden were able to ramp up nuclear power to high levels in just 15-20 years.
Nuclear will make the difference between the world missing crucial climate targets or achieving them. We are hopeful in the knowledge that, together with renewables, nuclear can help bridge the ‘emissions gap’ that bedevils the Paris climate negotiations. The future of our planet and our descendants depends on basing decisions on facts, and letting go of long-held biases when it comes to nuclear power.
Paul Brown - published in The Ecologist (1 Jan 2016)
In Paris, in early December, the advocates of nuclear power made yet another appeal to world leaders to adopt their technology as central to saving the planet from dangerous climate change. Yet analysis of the plans of 195 governments that signed up to the Paris Agreement, each with their own individual schemes on how to reduce national carbon emissions, show that nearly all of them exclude nuclear power. Only a few big players - China, Russia, India, South Korea and the United Kingdom - still want an extensive programme of new-build reactors.
Amory Lovins, co-founder and chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute, produced a devastating analysis saying that the slow-motion decline of the nuclear industry was simply down to the lack of a business case.
The average nuclear reactor, he wrote, was now 29 years old and the percentage of global electricity generated continued to fall from a peak of 17.6% in 1996 to 10.8% in 2014. "Financial distress stalks the industry", he wrote.
Lovins says nuclear power now costs several times more than wind or solar energy and is so far behind in cost and building time that it could never catch up.
See next post which deals with Trident, the proliferation of nuclear materials and cybersecurity.