Mark Lynas’ “Nuclear 2.0:” The case for a Grand Alliance of Low Carbon

As a PhD researcher and an environmentalist who is deeply concerned about the utter lack of progress in reducing CO2 emissions, it has been dismaying to follow how the mainstream environmental movement has been spending money and energy in fighting the one technology that has actually – and not just in projections printed in glossy brochures – decarbonized entire nations. So far, the result is, as recent statistics show, an utter stagnation in the share of energy the world generates from clean energy sources: we are actually no closer to a carbon-free society than we were in 1990, despite all the hype surrounding various renewable energy schemes, and total global emissions only keep on growing.

Mark Lynas’s new Kindle Single e-book, “Nuclear 2.0: Why a Green Future Needs Nuclear Power,” is therefore a welcome, well-grounded argument in support of the view that we simply do not have the luxury of picking and choosing only those carbon abatement options we have an ideological preference for. As modeling specifically undertaken for the book shows, “all of the above,” including not just renewables but nuclear and carbon capture as well as efficiency improvements and shifts in consumption patterns (when possible), is the only strategy that offers even a hope for limiting global warming to less than 2°C, and it seems to be the only strategy that has some realistic chance in keeping the warming below 4°C. Interestingly, even the Greenpeace “Energy Revolution,” by far the most optimistic of the 164 renewable energy scenarios considered by IPCC in its 2011 SRREN report, even if executed perfectly, is not enough. If the most optimistic of already optimistic non-nuclear proposals cannot do the job even if everything goes according to the blueprint, then perhaps the plan needs to be changed.

Lynas tackles the usual talking points offered against nuclear power with great skill and verve, supporting his claims with a decent list of references. For someone new to the subject, this is probably the best and most concise overview of the debate and what actual science shows, for example, about the risks of radiation. While there is little new to those who have actually researched the subject by themselves, the book is still valuable as an overview and for its discussion about the origins of the anti-nuclear movement and for interesting details about coal plants that have followed “no” to nuclear. Despite all the nice words about being against both nuclear and coal, the sad fact is that anti-nuclear activists have unwittingly made themselves “useful fools” for the fossil fuel industry; you may not have known – for example – that Germany is one of the only countries in Europe still building and opening new coal-fired power stations. To paraphrase a late Finnish president, it seems that if you moon to uranium, you simultaneously bow to coal. (Incidentally, one coal plant missing from the examples is Finnish Meri-Pori coal generating station, built immediately after a “no” vote to new nuclear in 1993. Interestingly, it has almost the same power rating as the proposed reactor. As far as the claims that the German coal plants have nothing to do with the most recent nuclear shutdown, these are casuistry of the highest order, omitting cleverly the fact that most plants were approved during earlier nuclear phase-out decision.)

As Lynas shows, much of the anti-nuclear activism is grounded on misconceptions, poor science, and even blatant disinformation, spread by well-meaning but ideologically blinkered activists. The problem for these activists is that the scientific consensus does not, by and large, agree with their views. Radiation is a carcinogen, but a fairly weak one; Fukushima’s casualties will come from fear, not from radiation; and, when compared by impacts per energy unit produced, nuclear power is actually by far the least deadly of any energy source ever employed by humans. The length of the book prevents detailed discussion, and one could take some issue with certain phrasings such as the claim that there is no convincing evidence showing a statistically significant correlation between cancer incidence and radiation exposures of less than 100 mSv (there are some recent studies that contest this), but overall the book is at the very least a good starting point.

Lynas is also careful to point out that nuclear power is not a panacea, and the good qualities of nuclear are no reason to shun renewables – where they are appropriate. While Lynas glosses over some of the rather formidable problems with large-scale renewables (grid-scale energy storage being one of the most pertinent), this is a highly commendable position, partly because renewables do have their own, significant merits and are in many cases excellent choices, and partly because they are (at least for a while) much more acceptable to the general public than new nuclear power stations. An engineering-only analysis might show that nuclear alone (using novel fourth-generation reactors) could easily power the world, and with much less environmental impact than today’s power sources, but politics are different. And in any case, cooperation is more likely to produce results than infighting between which exact low-carbon technology should be promoted. It is heartening to read that this seems to be what the UK branches of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth seem to be tacitly doing: a recent joint statement, calling for “low-carbon unity” to take carbon almost completely out of the UK’s electricity system by 2030, included the British nuclear and renewables industries, and the growing carbon capture and storage trade group. Such grand alliance may be our last, best hope for saving a planet fit for human habitation.

This is perhaps the most important environmental book of the year, and one of the most important of the recent years as well. It is highly recommended to anyone with an interest in pressing environmental issues, it should be required reading for politicians, and one hopes that a print version will be available just so that one could hand them out to interested parties on occasion.

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About J. M. Korhonen

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11 Responses to Mark Lynas’ “Nuclear 2.0:” The case for a Grand Alliance of Low Carbon

  1. Proteos says:

    Well, the thing is this ‘grand alliance’ mainly rests on the green groups abandoning their opposition to nuclear power. Utilities are happy so long they make money, and returns in building renewables power generation plants are guaranteed in Europe.

    This alliance could have occurred first in France. I remember that one of the first times the greenhouse gases emission statistics were publicized, there has been a sketch in a satiric show here in France. In it, the leaders of the Green party rejoiced while hearing the CO₂ emissions were among the lowest in Europe only to be followed by silence when it was remarked that it was thanks to nuclear power. Since then, things have only got worse: the green groups are now publishing pipe dreams scenarios where they claim renewables will allow a nuclear exit. So if you expect such an alliance, do not hold your breath.

    And even if this alliance got sealed right here, right now, it is likely to be too late. In the last 10 years, China has turned massively to coal and global emissions have surged as a result. An issue that promised to be really tough is now close to impossible.

    • Thanks, Proteos, for your comment, and in general for your insights, especially regarding what’s going on in France.

      I agree that this is a hard and perhaps even hopeless struggle, and that old-school “environmentalists” (I somewhat hesitate to use the word in this context) will not change their opinions. As with science, progress here is likely to proceed from funeral to funeral, and I share your pain: almost every day, just thinking about energy issues fills my head with despair about all the foolishness and pipe dreams.

      But I wouldn’t underestimate the power of the educated public and persuading those who don’t have strong opinions either way. Just this week, one of the bastions of less than credible science, the Grist e-zine, showed signs of taking a more cautious, fact-based approach towards GMO’s – very much because of work by Mark Lynas and others. If this reconsideration can happen in GMOs, it can happen in energy issues as well.

      We don’t need and indeed cannot convince hard-core anti-nuclear activists. This battle is about the hearts and minds of fence-sitters, and there are many indications that it may not be as hopeless as it sometimes seems to be. For example, people under 30 generally view nuclear as a technology among technologies, and are in general much more open to fact-based arguments. In Finland, over 30% of the Green Party members are openly pro-nuclear, even though the party line is vehemently anti-nuclear; and my observations are that younger generation is more open than those in their 40s and 50s. In fact, in our recent municipal elections, one Green candidate actually ran on a platform advocating nuclear CHP for decarbonizing Helsinki – something completely unthinkable just four years ago. And one of the founders and a long-time leader of the said Greens, and in fact one of our smartest and most universally esteemed politicians, caused quite a stir by writing a book where (among other things) he said that nuclear shouldn’t be an important issue for the Greens any longer; the things such as safety improvements they fought for in the 1980s are by and large achieved.

      I don’t think it is realistic any more to prevent 4°C warming, unless we’re really lucky and major negative feedback mechanisms kick in. But there are degrees to any catastrophe, and even if we cannot have the grand alliance we’d hope for, I still say we can have a grand alliance that’s better than this constant bickering.

      By the way, may I suggest that you’d write more about what’s going on in France? My French is limited to “merde” and “merci beacoup,” but for obvious reasons I’d be extremely interested in the energy discourse over there, and I doubt I’m the only one.

      • Proteos says:

        One of the issues is that the political cultures are very different throughout Europe. In France, the Greens are more or less a party of the far left. People that have joined them come from the far left for a big part, of the positions they voice, many sound at the left of the main party of the left, the PS (socialist party). It’s a bit like the new communist party, they have a romantic aura and they hold the moral high ground. In Germany, they are more liberal, they are more likely to adopt free market policies and defend individual freedoms. The finnish greens must cope with the fact that there have been referendums on the nuclear question.

        Some veterans of the energy debates in France say that some green party bigwigs say privately that nuclear power is necessary, but these bigwigs will never say so in public. If so, they would lose all support. It’s a bit like the communists (again): then they were defined by the dictatorship of the proletariat, now the Greens are defined in France by their opposition to nuclear power and their opposition to industrial agriculture (and thus GMOs). And sadly, the young generation of Green leaders sound very much like the old, in no small part because their troops are as staunchly opposed to nuclear power as in the past.

        The situation is different in the UK, the country of Mark Lynas. The debate there is also much easier to follow by everyone else, as it takes place in english. And so it is more easily influenced from the outside, mainly the former colonies (Commonwealth & the US) which proivide many different examples (think of the situation of Ontario and compare this to Australia or … Alberta). In France, the debate is more closed, it tends to be feeding on itself, with the main external influence being Germany, both in terms of economic competitiveness (a plus for nuclear as the plants are already built) and in terms of opposition to nuclear.

        Completely understanding the french debate would require a lengthy introduction … but suffice to say that the debate has become crazy with the arrival of Hollande. He has launched an official debate to dress its promises (one of which is to close a nuclear plant). Yet, in this debate, officially aimed at achieving the decarbonization goal (inter alia), transportation has only been discussed in the last month! With electricity dominated by nuclear power, cars represent more than a third of the french CO₂ emissions… For now, I am pessimistic about the energy debate in France (disclosure: I have often a pessimistic bias), despite the examples of change abroad.

        As I said, writing about the french energy situation requires quite a lot of time … I’m already doing this on my own blog in french. Explaining it to a foreign audience would take some more.

  2. Thanks again, this was highly interesting. If you have time to provide even short updates from time to time, the service would be invaluable :). The current situation in Finland sounds very similar, the position of the Greens is similar and the debate is more about Germany than about Finland. Surprisingly, one of the best and most balanced pieces of reporting about Energiewende (much better than any English-language account I’ve read so far, in fact) was written and published by the Green party newspaper. But to correct one point, we haven’t had any referendums about nuclear power (although it has been an issue in general elections); the Swedes did in 1980, but now they’re effectively reversed that :).

    I think the question is how much power do the Greens in the end have, and whether they are going to use it. I don’t mind if someone says she’s against nuclear power in principle but doesn’t interfere in practice, as our Greens effectively did when the last nuclear permits were given. (Although not without internal problems, and some of them are predictably making threatening noises now.) I’ve also heard several supposedly reliable accounts of publicly anti-nuclear people privately admitting that it’s a necessary evil, and have personally heard even Greenpeace employees say so, so perhaps things can proceed even if the buy-in isn’t 100% complete.

    Being anti-nuclear seems often to be a major part of one’s self-identity, much like (any other:)) religion, and it seems to be futile to expect that people in general are even able to do a 180° on their long-cherished views. It’s like old communists who could never admit that their ideas had terrible consequences in practice – but stopped fomenting revolution nonetheless.

  3. Pingback: The stagnation of clean energy, with more detail | The unpublished notebooks of J. M. Korhonen

  4. Reading the book, which was excellent, I basically have only one problem with Lynas. Predictably, it is with his view on peak oil, which he largely dismisses. The problem is that he dismisses it not based on any science (at least so far as I can tell) but based on basically what ends up as industry views and propaganda (like his take on shale). And this is a problem especially, since Mark seems to have a high regard for science and the scientific method in general.

    I do get that many of the peak oil websites, articles and even books are not very thoroughly researched and come out quite aggressive and even conspiracy-like in their message. But there is also a wealth of actual research done on the subject and good books written of it, for example by Kjell Aleklett and his team, and many others (article in nature a year ago and so forth). Lynas seems to take the easy way out by trusting EIA, IEA and the others in their forecasts and estimates. These have been proven to be wildly wrong in the past, and are often based on economic models (that measure demand, not production) that don’t have any regards for physical, geological realities, for example.

    The thing many seem to miss is that we DO have enough oil, gas and coal to end up several degrees warmer than we are now. But we do NOT have enough of them (easily and cheaply available) to end up there with much greater prosperity and economic growth than we have now. Instead of just wrecking the climate, we will end up also wrecking the economic situation, and with it we will risk wrecking the geopolitical and societal situation as well. This will leave us with even less tools to mitigate the effects of climate change, and it will lead us to burn even more dirty fuels.

    Ironically this is, like the article in Nature put it, one more valid reason to leave fossil fuels behind. They will increasingly be unable to provide the economic benefits they have given us so far, but will leave us with more and more of the externalized costs they have. For me, this is a further reason to drive for faster adaptation of clean energy sources, be it renewables or nuclear.

    And to point out, it does irritate me that many peak oil writers seem to have much less knowledge of the nuclear power technologies and prospects and end up dismissing it based on somebody saying that we have this or this much uranium left so we really can’t ramp up nuclear that much (a peak uranium view). But it also irritates me when climate change writers have much less knowledge on peak oil and end up dismissing it and its potential effects as another hoax or non-issue…

    ps. I have to see to it that if and when our book on peak oil gets translated to English, it will find its way to Mr. Lynases Kindle 😉

    • Sami says:

      Completely agree with you that we can’t afford – for a number of reasons – to extract as much of the fossil fuels as we’re now planning. The tragedy is that I believe it will take a string of major climate-change-related disasters before anything will materially change in those plans, and by the time those happen it’ll be too late.

      I’m all for nuclear renaissance if it comes at the cost of e.g. coal, but I just don’t see it happening.

  5. Pingback: Graphic of the week: The great “80% of world’s energy could be generated from renewables” fallacy | The unpublished notebooks of J. M. Korhonen

  6. tottenmichael says:

    Dear JM, I am glad you included Lynas’ qualifier, “much” in arguing that nuclear power opposition is “grounded on misconceptions, poor science, and even blatant disinformation, spread by well-meaning but ideologically blinkered” opponents. For opponents like myself, grounded in evidence-based facts, see my 15-page letter to James Hansen on why nuclear power is not desperately needed as he, Lynas, you, and many others claim, available in pdf at http://assetsforlife.net/CrashCourse.html
    All the best, Michael

    • Dear Michael, thanks for your reply and for the interesting letter. It is true that some opponents, such as you, are much better informed, and I do not (and have not) denied that many good and valid points can be raised in an argument against nuclear power. In my mind, perhaps the most persuasive is the public acceptance: renewable energy sources face (at least, so far) much less public resistance, and even for that reason alone I would warmly support any credible scenario for replacing both fossil fuels AND nuclear with renewable energy.

      However, such scenarios are scarce, although superficially credible-looking 100% renewable energy scenarios are not. You yourself provide an excellent example: for example, I noticed that your letter uses the word “storage” only three times, and only once in the context of energy storage. This is telling, because the primary problem of renewable energy is not the marginal cost of generators themselves (although more on that later), but the system costs of building a reliable energy system. In this context, the key determinator is the cost and feasibility of a reliable combination of grid enhancement, demand control, and affordable energy storage in scales vastly larger than anything attempted so far.

      Furthermore, grid scale seasonal storage is largely science fiction. This is a severe problem, especially in the northern latitudes. For example, I live in a country where solar panels produce almost nothing between October and February, even though that’s the time of peak power consumption – and when the solar panels do produce peak power in June to August, almost all electricity needs are in any case met with very low emission sources anyway.

      Of course, you may reply that technological innovations – typically buzzwords such as “smart grid,” “vehicle to grid” or the like – will solve the problem. (I’d recommend anyone to have a hard look at the numbers of such schemes – for example, V2G is, in my opinion, very unlikely to provide more than marginal benefits at anything approaching reasonable prices.) But if one invokes technological advancements, then one must play fair and allow for improvements in nuclear power as well. I would also add that relying on technologies that are not yet demonstrated in anything like the scale necessary is, to me, overly optimistic.

      As for the costs, as far as I can tell, your letter uses marginal costs of newly installed generators only, in order to tell a story where renewable energy looks very cheap. This is true as long as we are speaking about marginal additions to the total generating capacity, but hugely misleading, if the goal is the elimination of fossil AND nuclear energy sources. For reasons that should be obvious (e.g. because the best places will be built first), the costs of a 100% renewable energy system cannot be extrapolated linearly from costs of current installations. More realistic assumptions result to costs jumping very rapidly once a threshold level of penetration is reached; this level depends on the specific system and the specific assumptions, but is almost always far below 40% ELECTRICITY penetration. Since we must allow for enough primary energy to replace fossil fuels in other uses as well, this is an exceptionally severe problem. (See the diagram in this blog post for an illustrated example: http://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/voices/michael-shellenberger-and-ted-nordhaus/no-solar-way-around-it/)

      This is one of the reasons that explain why credible ≈100% RE scenarios are rare – in fact, so rare that when the IPCC did its landmark report on the role of renewable energy in climate change mitigation (SRREN, 2011), only one of the 164 scenarios came even close, and that only when energy efficiency was awarded a rather heroical role. (The most optimistic scenario, provided by Greenpeace, could provide some 420 PJ/a by 2050, which is less than 80% of world’s CURRENT energy demand. See here: https://jmkorhonen.net/2013/10/03/graphic-of-the-week-the-great-80-of-worlds-energy-could-be-generated-from-renewables-fallacy/)

      When the most exhaustive overall assessment, and one that is by no means very critical of renewable energy, gets results such as these, I’m inclined to remain skeptical. In fact, I cannot see much difference between those who argue that 100% renewable energy will be fast enough for the climate change problem, and those who argue that climate change is not a problem. Both cherry-pick the data and use only the most optimistic results to argue their case.

      Finally, as for your claims for the role of energy efficiency: I see you have not even mentioned the rebound effect or the Jevons paradox. I would strongly suggest you to study this remarkable phenomenon, from e.g. Sorrell (2007), and consider whether energy efficiency claims made by e.g. Amory Lovins seem credible in the face of actual evidence and as a general conclusion. I’m not saying that energy efficiency is not important, nor that in some specific cases it can be just as important as mr. Lovins claims, but I’m saying that in general relying on it is dangerously optimistic.

      As far as other claims by mr. Lovins are concerned, I have had the honour of actually attempting to run a business whose unique selling point largely rested on his writings and predictions. The experience taught me some very useful facts regarding the difference between vision and reality.

      Thanks again for your comment, and wishing you the very best,

  7. kelvinsdemon says:

    I believe James Hansen, consider that Al Gore does not fully appreciate how serious the problem is, and have a weakness for both pro-nuclear and anti-wind websites and Facebook groups,
    As far as I can tell, there are enough people injured in their souls and pockets if not their actual health (probably even the last) by wind turbines and the “renewables” mania of the various governmental and political parties to cause some, perhaps many in Ireland and Scotland, to discredit the existence of human-made global warming.
    I myself consider every thousand dollars spent on wind and solar almost certainly wasted.

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