The green movement should embrace nuclear

Not only would nuclear buy us some time, but it could knock the US off its perch.

John Stephenson is a politics student at Lancaster University

The economist John Broome compares climate change initiatives to the purchasing of a fire extinguisher; you don’t know if your home will catch alight, but the acquirement of such a commodity is wise to say the least.

Unfortunately however, the occurrence of global catastrophe resulting from climate change is a tad more likely than a simple house fire. Global warming entails the politics of uncertainty and it was only until recently that a ‘do nothing’ approach was employed by governments around the world.

However, perhaps the green movement itself is also guilty of failures; with inner-circle disputes preventing the lobbying of government departments and opening the door to external criticism.

I would argue that environmentalists face two distinct choices: either push on with a united front or give up and focus on preventative action in the face of disaster.

For one, there needs to be a consensus within the greens as to which course of action to take. Activists are more fractured than would typically be expected, with fundamental disagreements over renewable energy projects such as solar power and wind farms.

We only need to look as far as James Lovelock, one of the Green movement’s most prominent figures, for evidence of such discord. Earlier this year he denounced wind farms as potential “monuments of a failed civilisation”. He added that the original intentions of the movement had been twisted, stating

“We never intended a fundamentalist Green movement that rejected all energy sources other than renewable, nor did we expect the Greens to cast aside our priceless ecological heritage because of their failure to understand that the needs of the Earth are not separable from human needs.”

An inherently paradoxical situation persists in which campaigners protest against the dumping of nuclear waste while turning a blind eye to more immediate concerns. Yes, the waste from power stations such as Sizewell B may be radioactive in ten thousand years, but according to the British Geological Survey, the potential damage from noxious gases such as Methane Hydrate is likely to occur next century.

If such conflicts cannot be resolved, then mitigation may be the answer and the need for such a change of focus is accentuated by the bleak outlook for climate change policy. In light of the economic downturn, EU member states such as France and the UK have slashed renewable energy investment, and Germany looks set to halt government support for solar power by 2015.

The World Bank seems to have cottoned on to this reality, increasing its contributions to the developing world by $100 million and doubling the funding towards adaption.

Climate change graph 2

The reasoning behind such decisions takes into account the greater impact developing countries will experience in comparison to countries north of the Brandt line. By 2020, up to 250 million people in Africa could be exposed to greater risk of water stress and the UNFCC predicts that the amount of international aid required by developing countries to adapt to global warming is between $28-67 billion – amounting to 0.2-0.8 of all global investment.

Assuming the head in the sand attitude of global governance continues, however, such investment looks unfeasible. Furthermore, as good as protests are at attracting attention, environmentalists cannot compete with corporate firms when it comes to legal challenges and mediation, as the disparity of wealth is immense.

Greenpeace’s 2012 budget of around 200 million, for instance, is miniscule when compared to that of an oil giant such as BP, which in 2010 spent 100 million on advertising alone. As defeatist as it seems, some greens actually push for a system which incorporates the very greed and self-interest that often blocks environmental protection.

Radical proposals such as ‘eco-capitalism’ and ‘free-market environmentalism’ are not unheard of, but these assume the willingness of national states to consider the use of ‘natural capital’.

If there is to be a compromise then I would suggest that nuclear energy is the way forward. Not only would it buy us some time, but it could knock the US off its perch. At present, the US holds around a third of the world’s coal and half its oil shale; and peak usage is likely to be reached within 200 years, seeing a significant increase in the price of fuel.

Yet our prospects needn’t be so bleak. According to the nuclear energy institute, worldwide nuclear energy avoids the emission of around 2.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide per year; the State’s own Department of Energy labelled it the ‘single most effective emission control strategy’.

It is obvious that a new plan of action is needed. Environmental debates are much like Obama’s confrontations with Congress. Although in this instance, while more long and drawn out, the consequences could be deadly.

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20 Responses to “The green movement should embrace nuclear”

  1. swatnan

    Its what I’ve suspected for a long time that the Greens are a bunch of conservatives and not the reformers they pose as. They are simply not prepared to explore new ideas. The Nuclear Industry is probably the safest industry around these days. They have to be to protect their reputation. renewable energy is ok up to a point but will not go far to support the other 80% of the worlds energy needs. And the evidence of CO2 emmisions and global warming is beyond doubt. The pity is that Britain once led in Nuclear, but because of the shortsightednes of Govts we lag behind and depend on others.

  2. MoniqueBuckner

    Having more Fukushimas sounds like an exciting idea.

  3. prickyleaks

    Are you sure you mean 2.5 metric tons? Doesn’t sound very much.

  4. Alec

    Fukushima survived an earthquake 1,000 times stronger than that it was designed to withstand. It was the unexpected tsunami which did for the reactor… there hasn’t been a tsunami of any strength here since well before recorded history.


  5. MoniqueBuckner

    So the point is that there is no guarantee that nuclear power stations are 100% safe and that when there is a problem,, it’s going to cost masses of taxpayer’s money to deal with the damage (not that it can be dealt with as nuclear leaks cannot be ‘mopped up’ and huge swathes of land has to be permanently vacated- not great if you’re living on a cramped island).

  6. MoniqueBuckner

    It’s hardly ‘conservative’ to care about what happens to other human beings (and our food system) when a nuclear disaster strikes. Being progressive means having renewable energy for each household and energy efficient equipment and not investing in costly power stations that need nuclear fuel to run (and think of the environmental cost of the mining). And the waste. Where does that go? We can only dig so many great big holes to fill with nuclear waste, unless we sell it to third world countries so they can poison themselves for our cash. It’s the Tories who most back nuclear, so don’t go accusing me of being one. Saying that nuclear is safe is beyond laughable- it’s insulting unless you’ve been asleep since the nuclear age occurred. Nuclear will not meet our energy supplies or adequately cut carbon emissions- the maths is available. Even 10 new plants will not cut enough emissions.

  7. Alec

    It was a response to the specifics of your comment. Scotland is not in an earthquake zone with threat of tsunamis, so the Fukushima analogy is falsified.


  8. MoniqueBuckner

    Scotland? I meant all of the UK. And guess what? The UK is not immune to earthquakes.

  9. Alec

    My mistake. I had the idea the accompanying photo looked like Torness. It’s the same country, as well.

    And guess what? The UK is not immune to earthquakes

    Not nearly enough to smash the plates in the onsite canteen. Find another argument.


  10. blarg1987

    To extend your logic further would that mean we would also have to stop, refining oil, producing materials etc all of which use hazardous means and if struck by a tsunami could cause huge amounts of ecological damage.

  11. MoniqueBuckner

    Didn’t you read the article though? It’s about nuclear energy in the UK. Historically, the UK has experienced some severe earthquakes. I suggest you contact the geological society and explain that your crystal ball has completely ruled out any threats of severe earthquakes, including from isostatic readjustment. They will be keen to listen.

  12. MoniqueBuckner

    For the sake of human security, yes, it would be a rational argument to stop producing hazardous waste.

  13. Alec

    What precisely did I get wrong? Referred to the area being discussed by an area which isn’t exposed to the geological and meteorological stresses similar enough to make the distinction moot? Nope, if I’d said “rest of the UK” it would have made zero difference to the intent.

    England gets used interchangeably with other parts of Britain often enough, and grown-ups know what’s meant. Dry your eyes and learn what it’s like for the other half.

    You’re looking for a get-out clause to avoid defending your Fukushima comparison (which, because it’s wholly different, you can’ which is why you’re trying to wriggle out of it).


  14. Alec

    Well, get off your computer and Internet connexion! Think of the complicity in polution!


  15. Tom

    This article seems pretty bizarre to me – both the premise and the conclusion seem wrong. All the big environmental groups (that I can think of) are of one mind about renewable projects, and have been pushing for serious mitigation action for decades. They have also stressed the importance of adaptation for as long as we’ve known about the inevitability of some climate change. I’m really not clear how you reached the conclusion that green discord is responsible for failure to mitigate – it really isn’t.

    It then also puzzles how you could posit nuclear as a ‘compromise’ solution. Nuclear power plants take a long time to build, and so can’t displace any CO2 for about a decade. Renewable/energy efficiency projects can deliver quicker, more cheaply and more effectively. And without nuclear’s major downsides (mining, accidents, safety, non-renewability). If you think a coordinated green movement could attain its goals, then why would the goal have to be nuclear, rather than something better?

  16. jimhopf

    At Fukushima, we learned that even a worst-case “nuclear disaster” causes no deaths and has no measurable public health impacts. Meanwhile, fossil fueled power generation continues to cause several hundred thousand deaths every year, along with global warming. That’s ~1000 deaths every single day. Even the most pessimistic estimates of Fukushima’s total eventual health impacts are less than that inflicted every single day by fossil fuels, Fukushima being the only significant release of pollution over non-Soviet nuclear’s entire history.

    Your apparent lack of concern about the infinitely greater impacts of fossil fuels (on “other human beings”) doesn’t strike me as very progressive. And no, you don’t get to say we should choose neither (nuclear or fossil). Any all-renewable eutopia is a very long way off. In the meantime, the focus needs to be on reducing fossil fuels use by any means necessary, including nuclear. For the forseeable future, any rejection of nuclear represents a choice to use fossil fuels instead.

    Nuclear waste is generated in negligible volumes (a million times smaller than other waste streams). Finding “space” for it is trivial. It’s also a myth that no other waste streams are hazardous over the very long term; many of our other waste streams will pose a far greater long-term hazard than nuclear waste. In terms of relative safety, it is your opinion that is laughable and insulting (and not at all based on the data/record, or any quantitative analysis). Virtually all quantitative studies of relative safety show nuclear to be the safest of all sources, including renewables. In terms of overall environmental impact, nuclear is vastly superior to fossil, and similar to renewables.

  17. jimhopf

    Based on what we’re seeing in Japan, its more on the order of a few years, after which most if not all the affected land area can be rehabitated. The isotopes responsible for virtually all exposure have a half life of ~30 years, but decay isn’t even the main source of reduction. There is also natural disperion (washing away) and cleanup efforts.

    In term of economic cost, we’re seeing that a full meltdown of three large reactors, in a high density nation (with relatively high population density and property values around the plant), will end up costing on the order of ~$100 billion. This is about equal to the economic cost inflicted *every year* by fossil fueled power generation in the US alone (much more worldwide). That’s the econimic cost, which occurs in addition to the health impact (i.e., 13,000 annual deaths in the US alone; hundreds of thousands worldwide).

    BTW, if you divide the ~$100 billion meltdown cost by the number of kW-hrs produced by non-Soviet nuclear over the last several decades, you get an “accident cost” of only ~0.1 cents/kW-hr. Not a significant external cost, actually, if one actually goes by the numbers.
    Neither nuclear not any other energy source will ever be 100% safe. It doesn’t have the be. The point is that nuclear is orders of magnitude safer, and has orders of magnitude less environmental impact, than the fossil fuels that make up the overwhelming majority of our power generation.

  18. jimhopf

    There is no potential for Mag 9.0 earthquakes in Britain. Nor is there the potential for large tsunamis. After Fukushima, all such issues will be thoroughly vetted before any plant is built.

  19. Dale

    Have to agree with this. The current inaction is due to those with vested interests in the status quo, not the green movement.

    Nuclear plants take 5-10+ years to build. You also have to establish uranium/thorium/whatever mining and storage, both of which are not ‘green’ concepts at all, but avoidable problems that future generations will have to maintain.

    Avoidable because renewables are becoming more and more sophisticated and reliable. Current nuclear implementations around the world are being shut down in favour of renewables. Anyone stating current renewable technology is insufficient is mistaken. It’s ‘good enough’ right now and will only get better, especially within the time it takes to build a single nuclear reactor.

    We should be investing in improving renewable tech and battery storage options (so that energy can be exported via battery) rather than pursuing the nuclear distraction.

    I would be pro nuclear if we didn’t have a better alternative. But we do.

  20. stevek9

    Environmentalist opposition to nuclear makes dealing with climate change impossible. It really is that simple. And, even a positive article like this is exaggerating the ‘waste’ problem, which is not a problem at all. First there is very little of it (that is the thing with nuclear power, a million times the energy density of fossil fuels means you don’t use much), it can easily be stored, and it is not ‘waste’ at all, as it almost certainly will be ‘burned’ in fast reactors in the future. In fact the ‘waste’ and depleted uranium we already have could power civilization for centuries.

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