Going nuclear

A confluence of new pieces of information today. First, a very interesting (not to mention, for many, contentious) contribution by Sir David King, in whose new book the “green movement” comes under fire for its, well, ways:

Sir David King, who stepped down last month after seven years as the government’s chief scientific adviser, says any approach that does not focus on technological solutions to climate change – including nuclear power – is one of “utter hopelessness”.

He says: “There is a suspicion, and I have that suspicion myself, that a large number of people who label themselves ‘green’ are actually keen to take us back to the 18th or even the 17th century.”

He characterises their argument as “let’s get away from all the technological gizmos and developments of the 20th century”.

“People say ‘well, we’ll just use less energy.’ Come on,” he says. “And then there’s the real world, where everyone is aspiring to the sort of standard of living that we have, which is based on a large energy consumption.”

King calls global warming the biggest challenge our civilisation has ever faced, and famously, in a 2004 article in the journal Science, berated the US for its inaction, describing climate change as “more serious even than the threat of terrorism”. But his vocal support for nuclear power and genetically modified foods has led to tensions with environmental campaigners.

His book prescribes a barrage of technological measures based on nuclear energy, wind power, cutting emissions from cars and buildings, increasing the global area of solar panels by a factor of 700, and capturing and storing emissions from fossil fuel power generation. Only with a nuclear component, he argues, might Britain “just about manage” to reach its commitment to reduce CO2 emissions by 60% on 1990 levels by 2050.

I’ve held, and held to, my position on nuclear energy (here, here and here). Re-cap: yes, it is most likely to be the only source of energy sufficient for our needs, that won’t kill us off deterministically. It’s the people in charge of it all, however, that I feel will kill us probabilistically. No recent legislative moves have given me anything but more pessimism in that regard. Which leaves me a bit nowhere (and people wonder why I’m such a miserable bastard).

Ultimately, though, the arguments are not so dissimilar. I fault the people anywhere close to nuclear power, not the technology itself (necessarily). I have no recognised position in the sort of partisan debate that seems to exist at the moment, of course – just look at the rejoinder provided by the Guardian:

John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace, said it was King, not green activists, who was living in the past. “We need science to get us out of the climate change hole we’re in – that’s why Greenpeace wants to see research funding piled into the cutting-edge low-carbon technologies that can deliver deep emissions cuts in a very short timeframe,” he said.

“We’re talking about technical solutions that can also be safely spread to every country in the world, no matter how unstable. Nuclear power isn’t that technology, but Sir David wants to take us back to the 1950s, the last time we were told it would solve all our problems.”

All our fear-mongering about carbon concentration, terrorists, nuclear waste – when it will be the bloody straw men in every debate that end up being the death of us.

Moving on. The timing and timeliness of Sir King’s book/publicity could not be better: A couple of reports out today hit upon this very same issue. the Pew Center on Global Climate Change have one out: Regional Impacts of Climate Change: Four Case Studies in the United States. Here’s a sample:

In coming decades heatwaves in the Midwest are likely to become more frequent, longer, and hotter than cities in the region have experienced in the past. This trend will result from a combination of general warming, which will raise temperatures more frequently above thresholds to which people have adapted, and more frequent and intense weather patterns that produce heatwaves.

Studies projecting future mortality from heat foresee a substantial increase in health risks from heatwaves. Several factors contribute to increasing risk in Midwestern cities, including demographic shifts to more vulnerable populations and an infrastructure originally designed to withstand the less severe heat extremes of the past. The elderly living in inner cities are particularly vulnerable to stronger heatwaves; other groups, including children and the infirmed, are vulnerable as well.

Adaptations of infrastructure and public health systems will be required to cope with increased heat stress in a warmer climate.

That’s just with regard to the first case-study (heatwaves). There four in total (wildfires, the loss of wetlands and hypoxia). I haven’t, to be honest, looked at the report too too closely (it’s late, here), but it looks like a worthwhile endeavour for either side of the debate. It will certainly feature in my climate change lesson in this semester’s Cost-Benefit Analysis class (coupled with Bjorn Lomborg’s TED talk, probably).

Which brings us again to Sir David King and nuclear energy. All indicators, currently, are that we will not do this without nuclear energy picking up a significant amount of slack. The trouble is (a) my principle fear, as detailed above, and (b) it still isn’t clean. It may be less not-clean, but let’s not kid ourselves. It kills people coming out of the ground, and at every point thereafter.

So to the final new piece of information that I saw this evening: Serious Safety and Security Risks Undercut Nuclear Power’s Role in Minimizing Global Warming, New Report Finds. The report wastes little time:

The life cycle of nuclear power results in relatively little global warming pollution, but building a new fleet of plants could increase threats to public safety and national security.

Nuclear power is riskier than it should—and could—be. The United States has strong safety regulations on the books, but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission does not enforce them consistently. Current security standards are inadequate to defend nuclear plants against terrorist attacks. A major accident or successful attack could kill thousands of people and contaminate large regions for thousands of years.

Um, this report is worth reading if you want to run through the anecdotes and have the shit scared out of you. Frankly, I was paranoid enough beforehand – and that was just from old information.

And that’s the debate. Nuclear energy is clean, relative to other sources. It is cheaper and more dense than any other source of energy. That it’s a deadly (you know, for others) material to mine makes it no different from coal or oil – and that moral dilemma is hardly slowing any of us down. If we’re to get anywhere, at all, with climate change, we will need to grow the hell up and decide that we need to be mature enough to use it safely, and then of course we need subsequently to actually use it safely.

More pessimism. I’ll leave you with this thought: George W Bush won the White House in no small part because he was likable: people wanted to have a beer with the man. His administration has been the one keeping safety procedures held down and back, on behalf of industry, since the word go. The answer is not that we all need to grow the hell up – but we won’t find the answer until we do.

Absent any reliable enforcement even of safety regulations already in place, how can we trust a new generation of nuclear power plants? We can’t. Here is a market in which “the market” cannot help us: we can’t punish a company by not buying their energy after they blow half a freaking town away. And we just don’t get the information required to make safety-based purchasing decisions as consumers. As citizens our own government isn’t doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves – protect us – but, as an electorate, we are hardly making responsible choices when offered the chance to force them to do so.

Alternatively, did you hear about Britney Spears running around crazy and naked?

This is among the reasons why being in the Green Lantern Corps ranks as my favourite job. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have to worry about this sort of thing if I was the Green Lantern. Galactic conflict, sure – but I’d be the Green Lantern, man.


2 comments so far

  1. opit on

    Have you taken the time to peruse the nuclear commentary at Politics ‘n Poetry ? I think you’ll find it a worthwhile exercise to do so.

  2. zooeygoethe on

    It is indeed. The trouble, of course, is that (a) Uranium is a depleted natural resource – but so are the others, (b) Uranium is a bloody toxic thing to mine and use – but so are the other energy resources, (c) etc.

    This is germaine to King’s entire argument: people just aren’t slowing down in their energy use. Blocking alternative (and, relative specifically to carbon concentration levels, cleaner) sources of energy is tantamount to wishing the problem away. Which pisses me off, no end, but I can’t pretend I don’t participate in the problem, either.

    Coming from the country with most of the Uranium (under Kakadu, of all places), yeah – I hate nuclear energy. It’s dangerous, it’s a foolish trope to think new sources of energy will always be the panacea. I don’t trust companies to use it in a for-profit environment and I don’t trust Governments with it at all.

    Meanwhile, our countries are poisoned by people more interested in buying a Prius than converting the car they already own, while countries like India have companies trying to get new cars into the hands of as many people as cheaply as possible. We sold how awesome it is to be rich and white entirely too well – now everybody wants some.

    At the end of day, the ideal that people will realise what we’re doing to our planet and stop just isn’t going to come to pass. Human brains just can’t deal with numbers that large, nor can they discount things that well. It’s the same reason(s) why we need both cap and trade.

    Personally, I’d give up some freedom of choice for William McDonough to run the world for a while.

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