Why nuclear power is still a good choice
What a strange turn of events. Instead of uniting the environmental movement in renewed opposition to nuclear power, the Fukushima disaster in Japan has divided it still further. An increasing number of green advocates, including some very prominent voices, have declared their support for nuclear power as a clean energy option, even as radioactive water accumulates and the timeline for cleaning up the contaminated areas extends by decades. Can they be serious?
They can. The irony of Fukushima is that in forcing us all to confront our deepest fears about the dangers of nuclear power, we find many of them to be wildly irrational -- based on scare stories propagated through years of unchallenged mythology and the repeated exaggerations of self-proclaimed “experts” in the anti-nuclear movement. As the British environmental writer George Monbiot has pointed out, if we took the scientific consensus on nuclear energy as seriously as we take the scientific consensus on climate change, we environmentalists would be telling a very different story.
The science on radiation tells us that the effects of Fukushima are serious but so far much less so than some of the more hyperbolic media coverage might suggest. The power plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., has been releasing enormous quantities of radioactive water into the sea, for example. It sounds scary, but a member of the public would have to eat seaweed and seafood harvested just one mile from the discharge pipe for a year to receive an effective dose of 0.6 millisieverts. To put this in context, every American receives on average 3 millisieverts each year from natural background radiation, and a hundred times more than this in some naturally radioactive areas. As for the Tokyo tap water that was declared unsafe for babies, the highest measured levels of radioactivity were 210 becquerels per liter, less than a quarter of the European legal limit of 1,000 becquerels per liter. Those leaving Tokyo because of this threat will have received more radiation on the airplane flight out than if they had been more rational and stayed put.
For the green movement, which is often justifiably accused of making the perfect the enemy of the good, having to confront real-world choices about energy technologies is painful. Most environmentalists assert that a combination of renewables and efficiency can decarbonize our energy supply and save us both from global warming and the presumed dangers of nuclear power. This is technically possible but extremely unlikely in practice. In the messy real world, countries that decide to rely less on nuclear will almost certainly dig themselves even deeper into a dependence on dirty fossil fuels, especially coal.
In the short term, this is already happening. In Germany -- whose government tried to curry favor with a strongly anti-nuclear population by rashly closing seven perfectly safe nuclear plants after the Fukushima crisis began -- coal has already become the dominant factor in electricity prices once again. Regarding carbon dioxide emissions, you can do the math: Just add about 11 million tons per year for each nuclear plant replaced by a coal plant newly built or brought back onto the grid.
In China the numbers become even starker. Coal is cheap there (as are the thousands of human lives lost in extracting it each year), and if the hundred or so new nuclear plants previously proposed in China up to 2030 are not built, it is a fair bet that more than a billion tons can be added to annual global carbon dioxide emissions as a result.
Japan is also heavily dependent on coal, so it is a fair bet that less nuclear power there will add substantially to the country’s emissions. No wonder the Japanese are insisting on backing off from the Kyoto climate treaty. Looking at the entire global picture, I estimate that turning away from nuclear power could make the difference between whether the world warms by 2 degrees Celsius (bad but manageable) and 3 degrees Celsius (disastrous) in the next century.
We have already made this mistake once. In the 1970s it looked as if nuclear power was going to play a much bigger role than eventually turned out to be the case. What happened was Three Mile Island, and the birth of an anti-nuclear movement that stopped dozens of half-built or proposed reactors; coal plants were substituted instead. It is therefore fair to say that the environmental movement played a substantial role in causing global warming, surely an ecological error it should learn from in years ahead.
Don’t get me wrong: I am an enthusiastic proponent of replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources. I strongly support wind, solar and other clean-tech options. But all energy technologies come with an ecological price tag. Wind turbines kill and injure birds and bats. Solar thermal plants proposed in the Mojave Desert have conservationists up in arms. If we are serious about taking biodiversity into consideration as well as climate change, these concerns cannot be idly dismissed. In terms of land use, nuclear scores very well, because the comparatively small quantities of fuel required means less land disturbed or ruined by mines, processing and related uses.
Take Japan again. According to some recent number crunching by the Breakthrough Institute, a centrist environmental think tank, phasing out Japan’s current nuclear generation capacity and replacing it with wind would require a 1.3-billion-acre wind farm, covering more than half the country’s total land mass. Going for solar instead would require a similar land area, and would in economic terms cost the country more than a trillion dollars.
Those debating the future of nuclear power also tend to focus on out-of-date technology. No one proposes to build boiling-water reactors of 1960s-era Fukushima vintage in the 21st century. Newer designs have a much greater reliance on passive safety, as well as a host of other improvements. Fourth-generation options, such as the “integral fast reactor” reportedly being considered by Russia, could be even better. Fast-breeders like the IFR will allow us to power whole countries cleanly by burning existing stockpiles of nuclear waste, depleted uranium and military-issue plutonium. And the waste left over at the end would become safe after a mere 300 years, so no Yucca Mountains needed there. IFRs exist only on paper, however; we need to urgently research prototypes before moving on to large-scale deployment.
What is needed is perspective. Nuclear energy is not entirely safe, as Fukushima clearly shows, even if the current radiation-related death toll is zero and will likely remain so. But coal and other fossil fuels are far, far worse. And insisting only on renewables risks worsening global warming as an unintended consequence. We need a portfolio of clean energy technologies, deployed in the most environmentally responsible way. Above all, let us base our energy policy on a scientifically valid appreciation of real-world risk, and not on scare stories from the past.
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