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.