I’ve been following the unfolding nuclear “crisis” in Japan with growing alarm. People who call themselves environmentalists have been jumping up and down with thinly disguised glee, pointing and waving and saying: “there, we warned you, nuclear is GONNA KILL US ALL”. Run for your lives, a plume of deadly radiation is spreading across the planet. We’re doomed, I tells ya, doomed.
And in a sense, they are right. Events at Fukushima have indeed taken the world a significant step closer to Carbon Armageddon. Still, good to see the media and the green movement finally finding something to agree about. Coverage of climate change may be a manufactured controversy. Antipathy to nuclear power, on the other hand, is a manufactured consensus that serves both sides well. The media gets the blood-curdling and circulation-boosting headlines. The greens get their bogeyman. Everyone wins. Well, not quite.
Life-cycle analysis of nuclear energy confirms, surprise, surprise, that it is not a CO2-free business. A large 1,250 megawatt plant produces the equivalent of 250,000 tonnes of CO2 a year during its life, according to Uwe Fritsche, a researcher at the Öko Institut in Darmstadt, Germany, who has conducted detailed life-cycle analysis of nuclear plants. How does that compare with, say, Moneypoint? Well, it’s significantly smaller, with a 915mw output and it produces around 14,000 tonnes of CO2 – a day. That’s around 5 million tonnes per annum, leaving aside the cocktail of other toxins its giant 214m stacks dump into the winds – mercury, nitrous oxide, lead and other heavy metals, and of course, lots and lots of low level radiation!
So, our 915mw coal-fired plant produces 5 million tonnes of CO2, plus lots of other gunk. An evil nuclear plant producing 30% more power (1,250mw) accounts, in the entirety of its life-cycle, including mining and transportation of ores, construction and decommissioning, etc., 250,000 tonnes a year – i.e. around 4% of the CO2 output of it coal-fired counterpart, and that’s when EVERYTHING is taken into account. No wonder the greens are demanding we shut them down forthwith.
Anyone who imagines for a moment that once the world is rid of the evil scourge of nuclear power (“it’s just wrong to be splitting atoms, it’s unnatural”, I heard a well known environmentalist opine on Newstalk a few days back) that we’ll replace these lost terrawatts with wind/wave power is simply not paying attention. If we’re extraordinarily lucky, globally, non-nuclear renewables may, one day, account for 20-30% of our ever-expanding global energy needs.
To reach that goal will require a WWII-style global energy mobilisation, with renewable investment running into trillions, and facing down armies of Nimbys who will object to each and every one of the hundreds of thousands of enormous wind turbines and millions of pylons and related infrastructure such an endeavour will require.
All this, remember, just to replace evil, evil nuclear. No coal-fired plants will be decommissioned, since the ecological dream of finally defeating nuclear power will have guaranteed that we’ll have no choice but to burn coal/gas/oil/shale oil until the carbon-fuelled Sixth Extinction finally sweeps away the species operating these plants.
The extent to which “pro-environment” advocates are prepared to tell blatant lies and spout eco-propaganda on a par with the output of right-wing think tanks is underlined by this amazing outburst from the Guardian’s Environment Editor, John Vidal, whose piece was run in its entirety in the Irish Times. Among its gems: “In just one generation it (nuclear energy) has killed, wounded or blighted the lives of many millions of people and laid waste to millions of square miles of land.” If Vidal were talking about coal or indeed oil, he might have a point. To ascribe that to nuclear is, frankly, tripe.
Thankfully, the usually steadfast environmental coverage in the Guardian returned to sparkling form with a cracking piece by George Monbiot, which I have reproduced below in full:
YOU WILL NOT be surprised to hear that the events in Japan have changed my view of nuclear power. You will be surprised to hear how they have changed it. As a result of the disaster at Fukushima, I am no longer nuclear-neutral. I now support the technology.
A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation.
Some greens have wildly exaggerated the dangers of radioactive pollution. For a clearer view, look at the graphic published by xkcd.com. It shows that the average total dose from the Three Mile Island disaster for someone living within 10 miles of the plant was one 625th of the maximum yearly amount permitted for US radiation workers. This, in turn, is half of the lowest one-year dose clearly linked to an increased cancer risk, which, in its turn, is one 80th of an invariably fatal exposure. I’m not proposing complacency here. I am proposing perspective.
If other forms of energy production caused no damage, these impacts would weigh more heavily. But energy is like medicine: if there are no side-effects, the chances are that it doesn’t work.
Like most greens, I favour a major expansion of renewables. I can also sympathise with the complaints of their opponents. It’s not just the onshore windfarms that bother people, but also the new grid connections (pylons and power lines). As the proportion of renewable electricity on the grid rises, more pumped storage will be needed to keep the lights on. That means reservoirs on mountains: they aren’t popular, either.
The impacts and costs of renewables rise with the proportion of power they supply, as the need for storage and redundancy increases. It may well be the case (I have yet to see a comparative study) that up to a certain grid penetration – 50% or 70%, perhaps? – renewables have smaller carbon impacts than nuclear, while beyond that point, nuclear has smaller impacts than renewables.
Like others, I have called for renewable power to be used both to replace the electricity produced by fossil fuel and to expand the total supply, displacing the oil used for transport and the gas used for heating fuel. Are we also to demand that it replaces current nuclear capacity? The more work we expect renewables to do, the greater the impact on the landscape will be, and the tougher the task of public persuasion.
But expanding the grid to connect people and industry to rich, distant sources of ambient energy is also rejected by most of the greens who complained about the blog post I wrote last week in which I argued that nuclear remains safer than coal. What they want, they tell me, is something quite different: we should power down and produce our energy locally. Some have even called for the abandonment of the grid. Their bucolic vision sounds lovely, until you read the small print.
At high latitudes like ours, most small-scale ambient power production is a dead loss. Generating solar power in the UK involves a spectacular waste of scarce resources. It’s hopelessly inefficient and poorly matched to the pattern of demand. Wind power in populated areas is largely worthless. This is partly because we have built our settlements in sheltered places; partly because turbulence caused by the buildings interferes with the airflow and chews up the mechanism. Micro-hydropower might work for a farmhouse in Wales, but it’s not much use in Birmingham.
And how do we drive our textile mills, brick kilns, blast furnaces and electric railways – not to mention advanced industrial processes? Rooftop solar panels? The moment you consider the demands of the whole economy is the moment at which you fall out of love with local energy production. A national (or, better still, international) grid is the essential prerequisite for a largely renewable energy supply.
Some greens go even further: why waste renewable resources by turning them into electricity? Why not use them to provide energy directly? To answer this question, look at what happened in Britain before the industrial revolution.
The damming and weiring of British rivers for watermills was small-scale, renewable, picturesque and devastating. By blocking the rivers and silting up the spawning beds, they helped bring to an end the gigantic runs of migratory fish that were once among our great natural spectacles and which fed much of Britain – wiping out sturgeon, lampreys and shad, as well as most sea trout and salmon.
Traction was intimately linked with starvation. The more land that was set aside for feeding draft animals for industry and transport, the less was available for feeding humans. It was the 17th-century equivalent of today’s biofuels crisis. The same applied to heating fuel. As EA Wrigley points out in his book Energy and the English Industrial Revolution, the 11m tonnes of coal mined in England in 1800 produced as much energy as 11m acres of woodland (one third of the land surface) would have generated.
Before coal became widely available, wood was used not just for heating homes but also for industrial processes: if half the land surface of Britain had been covered with woodland, Wrigley shows, we could have made 1.25m tonnes of bar iron a year (a fraction of current consumption) and nothing else. Even with a much lower population than today’s, manufactured goods in the land-based economy were the preserve of the elite. Deep green energy production – decentralised, based on the products of the land – is far more damaging to humanity than nuclear meltdown.
But the energy source to which most economies will revert if they shut down their nuclear plants is not wood, water, wind or sun, but fossil fuel. On every measure (climate change, mining impact, local pollution, industrial injury and death, even radioactive discharges) coal is 100 times worse than nuclear power. Thanks to the expansion of shale gas production, the impacts of natural gas are catching up fast.
Yes, I still loathe the liars who run the nuclear industry. Yes, I would prefer to see the entire sector shut down, if there were harmless alternatives. But there are no ideal solutions. Every energy technology carries a cost; so does the absence of energy technologies. Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small. The crisis at Fukushima has converted me to the cause of nuclear power.