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Lovelock: 'Only nuclear power can now halt global warming'
Jon Lebkowsky, 24 May 04

Perhaps the category for this post should be "a nuclear electric green." James Lovelock, who with Lynn Margulis formulated the Gaia Hypothesis, says that a massive expansion of nuclear power as the world's main energy source is required to mitigate the effects of global warming. An article in The Independent says that Lovelock

believes only a massive expansion of nuclear power, which produces almost no CO2, can now check a runaway warming which would raise sea levels disastrously around the world, cause climatic turbulence and make agriculture unviable over large areas. He says fears about the safety of nuclear energy are irrational and exaggerated, and urges the Green movement to drop its opposition.
Lovelock says that the Greens' attachment to renewables is "well-intentioned but misguided".

Lovelock's own commentary in The Independent says that

We have stayed in ignorance for many reasons; important among them is the denial of climate change in the US where governments have failed to give their climate scientists the support they needed. The Green lobbies, which should have given priority to global warming, seem more concerned about threats to people than with threats to the Earth, not noticing that we are part of the Earth and wholly dependent upon its well being. It may take a disaster worse than last summer's European deaths to wake us up.
The same issue also includes an article noting that Lovelock was one of the first to warn of the potential disastrous impact of client change, and a piece about significant indicators of potentially catastrophic change: the rapid melting of the Arctic ice sheet covering Greenland, and the extreme heatwave in western central Europe last summer.

Note the very good comments on this post by Jamais Cascio and Matisse Enzer.

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Lovelock (in his editorial) makes a compelling case that climate change is happening faster and will be more disruptive than is commonly believed. He makes a less-compelling case that nuclear power is our only option, however. While he is correct to downplay the threat of direct radiation leakage from the power plants (coal plants are in reality a greater cancer risk), he doesn't touch on the two greater problems that are much more realistic: the terrorism danger and the waste problem.

The terror danger is straightforward: hostile groups could either hijack nuclear fuel for radiation-dispersal-devices (RDDs) or actual nuclear explosives (depending upon the enrichment level of the uranium) or they could attack the plants themselves and potentially breach containment, causing a massive radiation leak. The waste problem is just as clear, but even harder to deal with: even the cleanest, safest forms of nuclear energy production now available leave radioactive waste behind, material that does not go away for thousands of years and must be defended against hostile use (in RDDs) for all that time.

What's more, Lovelock (rightly) attacks vehicular carbon emissions as a major source of the problem -- but says nothing about just how nuclear electricity will do anything about it.

I'm just not convinced that Lovelock is right that the only plausible choice we have to forestall massive and imminent climate change is between definite global environmental disruption and possible regional environmental disaster(s). Advances have been made in the alternative energy sources he so readily dismisses: wind, solar, even wave power. And we're also seeing advances in technique to match the technologies: distributed power networks, hybrid power vehicles (which don't require total infrastructure replacement), and a rapid growth in efficiency. A diverse, multi-threaded approach is both safer and (ultimately) more reliable than going with a big system response which has very long term problems we don't have the first clue how to respond to effectively.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 24 May 04

My primary concern about nuclear energy is the political and economic centralization it relies upon and engenders. The safety issues are also serious and in my opinion, are made worse by the centralized decision-making that nukes require.

Posted by: Matisse Enzer on 24 May 04

Does anyone know how long it takes to build a nuclear power plant, from design to beginning of operation? How long does it take to build a wind farm?

Posted by: Jane Shevtsov on 24 May 04

It depends upon how you approach the problem. A wind farm can up and running, generating some electricity, as soon as you get a turbine hooked up to the grid; getting enough turbines going to match the output of a typical nuclear power plant would take a lot longer. The wind farm can be functional even while "incomplete," unlike a nuclear (or coal or gas or hydro or...) generator.

And don't forget the approval process. Getting power plants of any type going involves more than design and construction.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 24 May 04

Re: hostile groups & actual nuclear explosives

"Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. wondered aloud one day in 2002 whether someone could build an atomic weapon from parts available on the open market. His audience, the leaders of the government's nuclear laboratories, said it could be done.

"Then do it, the Delaware Democrat, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, instructed the scientists in a confidential session. A few months later, they returned to the soundproof Senate meeting room with a workable nuclear weapon, missing only the fissile material."

Re: how long it takes to build a nuclear power plant

"China has to either become much more energy-efficient or find substitutes for oil. Nuclear energy, for example, could be a viable alternative. But, it takes 10 years to build a nuclear power industry. China has to act soon if it wants to adopt the nuclear option. The alternative is to limit the growth of the automobile industry. The current growth trend could triple China's fleet size to 100 million by 2014. Unless China changes the current trend, it would be too late to slow oil demand."

Re: the approval process

"US tax and environmental policies have also contributed to the local supply-demand imbalance. Relative to other industrial countries, US energy taxation remains low, so the extra income from rising energy quotes goes to producers rather than to us. Higher prices make alternative energy sources attractive, but they require huge infrastructure investments that may be public goods. 'Not in my backyard' attitudes and balkanized environmental regulation have created regional barriers to what could be national markets. And they have made energy companies reluctant to invest in energy distribution infrastructure, and voters reluctant to approve projects such as electric power distribution facilities, or refineries to process freely available high-sulfur crude, or LNG terminals. In addition, the legacy of Three Mile Island (the Pennsylvania nuclear facility that malfunctioned in 1979) has made US nuclear power unacceptable."

Also see:

Imagine if doctors at a perpetually overrun hospital refused to perform triage on casualties but instead attended to patients as they arrived, fast-tracking those whose families made the most fuss. The approach would be unjust; it would waste resources and cost lives. Yet this is what we seem to accept when it comes to helping the world's most disadvantaged people.

We spend billions of dollars each year in an effort to improve life for those in need. This is most obvious through overseas development and aid, but is also achieved through trade policies, funding of medical research, investment in environmental protection, peacekeeping missions and the entire United Nations apparatus.

The problem is that we lack clear priorities. Too often spending decisions appear to follow the media's shifting spotlight or politicians' domestic interests. We do prioritise - no dollar can be spent twice - yet we do so implicitly rather than explicitly, and with no rational basis.

Providing a method for prioritisation is the goal of the Copenhagen Consensus. This week nine leading economists - including several Nobel laureates - are meeting in Denmark to answer the question: of all the threats confronting humanity, where could we do the most good?

The economists will focus on 10 of the greatest tests facing the world, ranging from financial instability and climate change to communicable diseases and hunger. Eminent scholars have prepared evaluations of solutions to each.

Thus, on communicable diseases, the economists will explore the costs and benefits of a localised approach to combating malaria, which could halve its incidence in sub-Saharan Africa by 2015. Then they will look at a strategy to combat HIV/Aids that could avert 30m cases by 2010. Is either option a higher priority than implementing the Kyoto protocol, one solution to the challenge of climate change? How can anybody attempt to make such a choice? The truth is that we already do so, but without acknowledging it.

In an ideal world we would not need to prioritise. We could simultaneously improve sanitation, end conflicts, global warming and malnutrition and win the war against communicable diseases. But our resources are limited. Explicit prioritisation does not mean dismissing a problem as unimportant or unsalvageable; it means using careful analysis to determine where we should focus our immediate attention.

Some critics claim the approach would create winners and losers. In Nature magazine Roger Riddell, international director of Christian Aid, the London-based charity, asked what would happen to the people of southern Sudan. "There is little chance of effective use of money there. But [the region] should not be abandoned," he said.

I would certainly not argue that the region's inhabitants should be "abandoned". But I would challenge such critics to explain why we should spend a large amount of our limited resources to achieve relatively little, when we could make a much larger difference elsewhere. We must strive to have a rational basis for every dollar spent.

This solution has been called simplistic - most recently on these pages on May 15, where it was accused of embodying a falsely reductive "command-and-control" view of the world's problems. It is indeed true that these are vast and interrelated. In many countries we cannot improve education without providing decent infrastructure and eliminating corruption and conflict. But the Copenhagen Consensus takes this into consideration by exploring how challenges and their solutions will interact.

We must ask ourselves whether limited success is better than no success at all. Should we not seek to accomplish the most good that we can, even if it is limited? While there is no simple solution to any of the world's challenges, a rational basis for setting priorities is surely better than none at all. Those who defend the status quo are arguing against a search for better information to shape our decisions.

After 2004 the Copenhagen Consensus will be held every four years. The highest-ranked problems and solutions will change, but the aim will remain constant, and so will the belief that - just as in the hospital's emergency clinic - a better sense of priorities and high-quality information can help us save more lives.

Posted by: Ibrahim on 24 May 04

Securing the nuclear plants is certainly possible. Large parts of them could be moved underground, they could be protected by heavily armed sentries against land and air attack, etc. I'm not very concerned about that, except in the case that it is not really done now.

Disposing and handling of the spent fuel are the major issues. There really are few workable alternatives there, and few of those are very eco-friendly.

It is really unfortunate, because other than the issue of spent fuel, nuclear power is very clean. Places like Yucca Mountain are stopgap measures at best, though, and there would be a huge outcry if other more permanent methods (dumping into deep ocean trenches, firing into space, etc) were even seriously suggested.

So what does that leave us? Wind, wave action, and hydroelectric are all clean and effecient and well understood. There is a lot of misguided opposition to hydro by well meaning but (in my opinion) misinformed greens, but the fact remains that it is by far the cleanest power source in widespread use today (in addition to its other benefits such as flood control and watershed management). Passive solar isn't viable with current technology. Wind power and wave/tidal power are extremely promising but not in widespread use yet.

Nuclear power is still an important and viable technology, though. While it might not be the only answer as suggested in the interview, it is certainly a part of the answer. More research into nuclear waste disposal would be an excellent use of government funding.

Posted by: Howard on 25 May 04

State licensing can take decades if primary water resources are impacted. THis is every bit as critical a problem as waste generation. Huge volumes of cooling water are needed and fisheries are definitely impacted. The drought stricken states will not be happy with the prospect of added water cooled generation capacity. However, four factors will drive a minor renaissance in nuclear power generation in the US, beginning this decade: -- 1.) continued volatility of natural gas reserves/and increasingly high prices for nat gas; 2.) the poor economics of cleaning up coal emissions, 3.) the need for energy independence, and 4.) the potential hazards of climate change. First out of the box will be the the relicensing and upgrading of a great many US Nucs that are at end of license/design life. First casualty will be opponents of the Nevada repository. Whichever political party grasps this first can take a leadership position on Climate Change and make sure that the planning is done right -- with scenario thinking behind it.

Posted by: John Laumer on 27 May 04

i really have to wonder what's in it for the detractors of passive solar energy. i realize it's not a viable substitute for large power plants. however, it's a viable option for reducing the workload on large power plants, thereby making nonrenewable fuel last longer and reducing emissions.

it would just take some politicians with the guts to make it happen. and the government spending money on solar arrays, tiles, etc., would drive down the prices and make this technology more available to private citizens in the future.

Posted by: dana on 1 Jun 04



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