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Nuclear vs Climate

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
#773
21/11/2013
Article

Nuclear power is back in the climate headlines after climate scientist James Hansen was joined by three others in posting a public letter in which they jointly urge environmental organisations to stop opposing nuclear power. In the letter they say that more nuclear energy is urgently needed and essential in the fight against global warming − because, in their opinion, wind and solar "cannot scale up fast enough to deliver cheap and reliable power at the scale the global economy requires."[1]

Mark Jacobson, a professor at Stanford in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, finds that perspective to be "without foundation or factual support." Research by Jacobson paints a completely opposite picture and says that wind, water, and solar can replace fossil fuels quickly, without nuclear. He said that nuclear power actually takes "10-19 years to plan, permit, and install, compared with 2-5 years for a solar or wind farm." Regarding next generation nuclear power, Jacobson said that it "does not even exist, except in theory and in the lab, and there is no guarantee it will ever exist at the commercial scale."[2]

Dr Daniel Kammen, co-director of the Berkeley Institute of the Environment at the University of California, says: "Nuclear power is certainly low-carbon in the use phase, but the problems with the nuclear fuel cycle, as managed today, are of: cost and extreme accidents. Today, nuclear power plants can cost as much as $10 billion for a 1500 MW plant and take a decade to construct … The climate crisis demands significant low-carbon deployment today, and it is not clear if nuclear can meet that immediate challenge."[3]

The US-based Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC) said "the authors of this letter (and other nuclear energy proponents) are on the wrong track when they look to nuclear power as a silver bullet solution for global warming. To the contrary, given its massive capital costs, technical complexity, and international security concerns, nuclear power is clearly not a practical alternative. Instead, energy efficiency will always be the quickest, cheapest solution to our energy and climate challenges, and clean renewable energy is growing today by leaps and bounds. Inexplicably, Dr. Hansen and his colleagues ignore energy efficiency altogether".[4]

NRDC says the treatment of renewables is inaccurately dismissive. Wind farms and solar arrays can be installed much faster and typically at lower cost than new nuclear plants, and the consequences of any single unit's failure are trivial by comparison. Hansen et al.'s contention that these resources cannot "scale" rapidly enough to make a difference is belied by the recent record – windpower alone added nine times more generation than nuclear plants to the US grid from 2000 – 2012. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has concluded that "renewable electricity generation from technologies that are commercially available today, in combination with a more flexible electric system, is more than adequate to supply 80% of total U.S. electricity generation in 2050 while meeting electricity demand on an hourly basis in every region of the country."

The co-authors of the Hansen letter hold out the promise of "safer nuclear energy systems" that will somehow turn things around. But the global history of the nuclear industry is littered with costly failures to create advanced reactor designs that could "reduce proliferation risks and solve the waste disposal problem by burning current waste and using fuel more efficiently."

The Sierra Club said: "If Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island have taught us anything, it's that nuclear plants are too expensive, too slow to build, and too risky. That's why countries like Germany – one of the largest economies in the world – are going all in on renewable energy sources and decommissioning dangerous nuclear plants."

Joseph Romm, the lead climate blogger with the liberal Center for American Progress, focuses on the cost of nuclear plants in his own rebuttal to the scientists' letter: "I think their letter is mis-addressed and also misses the key point about nuclear power − because it is so expensive, especially when done safely, the industry has no chance of revival absent a serious price on carbon."[5]

Romm writes that it's not the green movement that has prevented construction of new nuclear plants in the U.S. in recent decades. "As a practical matter, environmental groups have had little impact on the collapse of nuclear power in America. The countries where nuclear has dead-ended are market-based economies where the nuclear industry has simply been unable to deliver a competitive product," he writes.[5]

Pandora's Promise

Meanwhile the pro-nuclear documentary, Pandora's Promise by director Robert Stone was released on 15th November and formed part of a mini festival in London's Brixton, showing alongside five other documentaries exploring the pros and cons of nuclear generation and a panel discussion featuring Stone and several of his fellow filmmakers.[6]

For all the globetrotting from Fukushima to Chernobyl to Three Mile Island, the film completely ignores the issue which is actually at the centre of today's nuclear debate: cost. Damian Carrington writing on The Guardian website says there is a serious debate to be had about whether new nuclear power stations are a vital tool in tackling climate change or a damaging distraction from a truly clean energy future. The debate needs to be about which technology should be used, in which countries, at what cost and at what speed of deployment. This film, with its scant cast of writers and octogenarian engineers, says nothing about any of these issues.[7]

US group Beyond Nuclear says "exchanging global warming for nuclear meltdown is not the answer. From a purely practical standpoint − and ignoring for a moment nuclear power's other showstoppers such as cost, unmanaged nuclear waste, atomic weapons proliferation and catastrophic accident − there simply isn't time to choose nuclear power. There are faster, affordable alternatives, including energy efficiency and renewable energy installations such as wind farms and solar arrays that can be completed in months to a few years."[8]

Beyond Nuclear has produced a series of briefings on the film which can be found here: www.beyondnuclear.org/pandoras-false-promises

References:
1. World Nuclear News, 4 Nov 2013, www.world-nuclear-news.org/EE-Nuclear-essential-for-climate-stability-04...
2. Fairfax Climate Watch, 4 Nov 2013, www.fairfaxclimatewatch.com/blog/2013/11/hot-topic-hansen-says-global-wa...
3. RTCC, 4 Nov 2013, www.rtcc.org/2013/11/04/nuclear-essential-in-climate-fight-say-leading-s...
4. NRDC Blog, 5 Nov 2013, http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/dbryk/response_to_an_open_letter_on.html
5. Grist, 7 Nov 2013, http://grist.org/article/more-nukes-are-you-kidding-enviros-push-back-ag...
6. Engineer, 11 Nov 2013, www.theengineer.co.uk/blog/the-week-ahead-why-nuclear-energy-could-be-th...
7. Guardian, 8 Nov 2013, www.theguardian.com/environment/damian-carrington-blog/2013/nov/08/pando...
8. CNN, 7 Nov 2013, http://edition.cnn.com/2013/11/07/opinion/pandora-nuclear-gunter-kamps/i...