Tuesday, July 24, 2012

On Nuclear Power

The only safe nuclear reactor is 93-million miles away, the sun -  Daniel Hirsch

We've got record temperatures, and lots of truly frightening climate change data, just in time for a regional by-election.  The Ontario Clean Air Alliance (OCAA) is working to make nuclear power an issue this election.  It seems to me that if we want to wean ourselves off nuclear, we all have to vote NDP.

We don't have any recent movies like Silkwood (a true story) or The China Syndrome (in theatres 12 days before the 3-Mile Island accident) to scare the bejesus out of people anymore.

We just have real life.  But some still believe that nuclear is the way to get us out of this greenhouse gas mess we're in.

George Monbiot, a rigorous environmentalist and author of Heat, is an advocate of nuclear energy, and he thinks there are good ways of using waste materials to create more energy.  He was also part of a debate opposing Dr. Douglas Parr of Greenpeace - and the pro-nuke side of the debate won 63 to 9 just three months after the Fukushima disaster.  He's that good.

Monbiot used to be more nuclear-neutral.  In Heat (2006), he noted significant concerns with nuclear power (page 89):
* it increases chances of nuclear weapons being developed (see The Dark Knight Rises)
* every plant leaks radiation into the air and sea
* we only have enough uranium to last about fifty years
* it takes 20 years to build a reactor, and each reactor lasts only 20 years
* there are numerous dumping and leaking scandals and cover-ups because it's much cheaper to handle radioactive materials badly than handle them well (Tepco falsified safety data on at least 200 separate occasions - Rubin, 115)
* it's uninsurable
* it's expensive to build and run
* it's highly subsidized receiving 44 times as much government money as wind because big expensive schemes are more favoured with governments than small cheap ones (the bigger the project, the more powerful the lobby)
* BUT, it's better than coal.  If those are our only two choices, go with nuclear.  But he seemed to be in favour of renewables with natural gas backing up the system back then.

Then Fukushima happened, and people didn't drop dead en masse, and maybe suddenly he felt safer.  And climate change sure got a whole lot worse.  And he said, "Anyone who believes that the safety, financing and delivery of nuclear power are bigger problems than the threats posed by climate change has lost all sense of proportion."  James Lovelock, of the Gaia hypothesis, agrees.

And Monbiot makes a compelling argument that can't be lightly dismissed.  It's a gamble for sure.  On the one hand, if there's a nuclear meltdown we'll have an area with massive cancer deaths and contaminated land and water forever. On the other, with a global meltdown, we'll have mass starvation, desertification of agricultural land, and flooding which all will increase without our help thanks to positive feedback loops - oh, and unliveable daytime highs in much of the world.  The problem is that climate change won't be a death sentence for the wealthy bits of the world for a good 50-100 years or so, but a nuclear reactor meltdown could happen tomorrow.  According to Plato, we are all sorrily lacking in the art of measurement, and we'll see what's close up as having a much larger impact than what's further away in time or space.  And I do.  

A rebuttal from Jim Green (Friends of the Earth) also contains arguments against nuclear based on potential weapons development, and Ralph Nader lists reasons why nuclear power is a nightmare, and Paul Mobbs has an extensive, informative post illustrating some problems with Monbiot's position.

But I'm banking on this:  We're really bad at predicting - we tend to lowball how much renewable energy we'll likely use in the future.  In the 70s, experts predicted the states would need hundreds of nuclear reactors by now, but all the projections were way off.  We just don't know.
Projections of total U.S. primary energy use from the 1970s.
And if we're not going to be averaging a three degree increase in global temperatures in this century (which is the current life-threatening prediction - it was nice knowing you), then a nuclear meltdown becomes a much larger problem by comparison.

Michael Rose discusses the myths of nuclear power one being that without nuclear reactors, the U.S. cannot hope to combat climate change.
"It would be like "using caviar to fight world hunger," said Peter Bradford, former Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner and current staff member of the Environmental Law Center. The least expensive and most productive way to reduce our carbon footprint is to be energy efficient, not to build expensive nuclear power plants. "The money that was sunk into building the reactors in Japan should have gone into something that would really have helped us combat global warming like solar or wind power," and improving the national energy grid so that it's integrated, said Hirsch. We can't spend money on everything; we should spend it on solutions and not on technology that creates more problems."
The OCAA is suggesting an initiative focused entirely on cost to ensure that taxpayers don't cover any costs beyond the estimated in order to provoke a more accurate estimate - which will really show politicians and taxpayers the true cost - well, the financial cost anyway - of nuclear energy.  The reality is, government subsidies are keeping nuclear cheap.  If we had the same subsidies for renewables, we'd have solar panels on every rooftop.

David Suzuki's site suggests: "...the Liberals are still intent on investing in new nuclear capacity.  The Progressive Conservative go further by pledging to speed up nuclear power development.  The NDP want to reinvest money earmarked for nuclear power into energy efficiency and conservation, clearly a much better use for that money."

(Greens are also anti-nukes, but the NDP could actually win this one!)

According to Sierra Club Ontario, "...studies have demonstrated it’s possible to meet Ontario's electricity needs from existing hydro supplies, energy efficiency, renewable energy and, most exciting, tapping tremendous co-generation opportunities."

Many thinker in the arena suggest it's better to work on energy efficiency and conservation than to spend money on nuclear power.  We need to get everyone to conserve, which really means get the government to stop us from being such entitled brats.

This is tricky for Canada because, as Jeff Rubin points out in The End Of Growth, we depend on money from cars and tar sands.  That's a huge psychological barrier to overcome: going for long term surviving over short term thriving.  I don't expect Harper to be the man for that.  Rubin also comes to the same conclusion as others:
"...the solution to higher energy costs is quite simple: learn to use less energy" (15), and "when it comes to reducing emissions, altering the energy mix by adding more renewable sources is a red herring.  What the world really nees to do is use less power.  And that's exactly what is about to happen in tomorrow's economy" (243).  
How do we do that?  According to Rubin, make energy crazy expensive.  Make the tax on cars more than the price of the car.  Increase electricity prices by three times.  It will hurt our industries, but that's a price we have to pay if we want to continue to exist.  But, Rubin adds, we don't really have to worry too much if we can't find the cajones to do all that because, "the simple unspoken truth is that a recession is the best possible way to tame runaway carbon emissions."  He suggests, "Curbing emission will always take a backseat to the more tangible imperatives of job creation" (239).  Luckily, renewables create more jobs than nuclear power. But, again, "The reduction in emissions that's about to occur because of high costs is exactly the kind of adjustment environmentalists say we need...it will result from a profound slowdown in economic growth, which we currently lack the tools to fix" (249).  More products will be made locally since distance costs money, so manufacturing will come back home.  And he warns, people will have to learn to live with less and share jobs.  But in some ways that's a good thing.  Louis CK thinks so... (a treat for you if you've made it this far)

Speaking of space, here's a cogent excerpt from a book by Sally Ride, a physicist and the first woman in space who passed away yesterday (h/t Grist):
More than anything, though, I could see how fragile Earth is. When I looked toward the horizon, I could see a thin, fuzzy blue line outlining the planet. At first, I didn't know what I was seeing. Then I realized it was Earth's atmosphere. It looked so thin and so fragile, like a strong gust of interplanetary wind could blow it all away. And I realized that this air is our planet's spacesuit--it's all that separates every bird, fish, and person on Earth from the blackness of space.... 
To a person standing on the ground, our air seems to go on forever. The sky looks so big, and people haven't worried about what they put into the air. From space, though, it's obvious how little air there really is. Nothing vanishes "into thin air." The gases that we're sending into the air are piling up in our atmosphere. And that's changing Earth's life-support system in ways that could change our planet forever.
If only everyone would believe it and act on it! 


Shane Mulligan said...

Wow, Marie, that's amazing work! Thanks for these thoughts, and the lovely prose. It seems with Fukushima and what is increasingly looking like runaway AGW, life has become stranger than fiction. I think Rubin is quite right, but his vision of the future is unlikely to be embraced, even as it becomes our reality.

Marie Snyder said...

Hi Shane,

On Rubin - I actually found the book a real relief after reading Heat and others. And I want to believe it's true - yet it's funny hoping desperately for another depression! I'm sure I'll be in sparse company on that one.

Weird times.

Hey, thanks for reading all the way to the end!