How I learned to stop worrying and love nuclear power.

Biodiversity conservation by and large boils down to decisions about what we do and where we do it. Land use change is the major driver of biodiversity loss globally, mostly as a result of agricultural expansion. The discussion surrounding how to best divide up the landscape to best benefit biodiversity whilst meeting target of food production will run and run, but the land-sharing/land-sparing argument is equally applicable to other subjects.

One of these is power production. We all know that we are meant to be reducing emissions in the face of climate change. Some governments are doing this, while many others don’t really care. Meanwhile, with increasing global population it seems unlikely that energy demand will be reduced, at least in the short term.

To anyone reading this blog the consequences of not changing energy policies will probably be fairly clear. Increased severity of climate change will push species ever further polewards and disrupt the synchrony between species. Climate change could also disrupt agricultural production, which would be disastrous given that global human population is set to increase for at least the next 50 years. Given all this, it should be a no-brainer that we switch to less carbon intensive means of producing energy.

Most environmentalists would generally say that we should replace dirty coal and gas fired power stations with clean renewable energy generation. I agree, but only partially.

Renewables bring their own set of problems. Firstly, can they really meet our current energy demands? Probably not. It would need extremely quick uptake of green tech to do this. Even Germany, the EU country with the greatest percentage of its energy produced by renewables, can only manage 25%. Relatively speaking, this is great. However, they still need to do more.

Also there is the issue of space. How will we use our land to produce energy? Most renewables would take up relatively large chunks of land compared to the standard power station. Firstly, biofuels (which are a terrible idea for all sorts of reasons, but that’s the subject for another blog post) would need massive areas to be grown. They would also compete with agriculture for land, spelling problems for food security. Damming of rivers, like that recently announced for the Mekong, completely screw up the movement of aquatic species thus interfering with migration and breeding cycles.  All renewable energy production methods will require more space than carbon intensive methods (for a more detailed analysis see David MacKay’s excellent TED talk below). From a UK perspective it appears the best bet in terms of energy produced per square mile would, surprisingly, be solar.

However, I think the best idea would be to mix renewables and nuclear. This would allow for greater energy production for the area used than a wholesale switch to renewables and would still reduce carbon emissions. If this policy was implemented harm to biodiversity would be reduced and there would be less threat to food crops from the expansion of biofuels. To me this seems blindingly obvious. There are, thankfully, other conservationists and green groups that have seen the light but in general the green movement seems to be opposed to nuclear.

I find this extremely frustrating. Particularly the backlash following the tsunami in Japan last year. Both Japan and Germany are decommissioning their power plants and other European countries are not planning to replace their ageing reactors. We need to make hard decisions, often choosing between the least bad options. We can’t live in a magical land where renewables can provide the energy we need ad infinitum. Those of us that realise this should pressurise groups like Greenpeace and the various green parties throughout Europe into rethinking their policies. Without this rethink, they could be doing more environmental harm than good.

14 thoughts on “How I learned to stop worrying and love nuclear power.

  1. Great post. Loved the video too.
    I think that really we need to invest heavily in nuclear fisson so that we can survive until we have the technology to leap over to fusion. At that point I think we’ll all be dandy.

  2. You are touching on an issue that I wrote about recently – energy density. All else being equal, humans can reduce their impact on natural systems by choosing power sources that provide the most amount of power with the least amount of material and land inputs.
    Hands down, the winner of all available technologies is nuclear energy. It allows us, for example, to pack enough energy in a tiny reactor core to power a large, fast submarine for 33 years without refueling. It allows central station power plants with built infrastructure that covers just a few tens of acres to power very large cities with just a few truckloads of fuel every 18-24 months.
    Conservationists who are truly concerned about having human society living in as much harmony as possible with the environment should naturally be fans of atomic fission.
    In my analysis, the big reason they aren’t is that they have been carefully taught to fear that concentrated power source by people who are interested in selling far weaker power sources like coal, oil, natural gas, biofuels, wind turbines, solar panels and hydroelectric dams.

    1. I totally agree with the ‘energy density’ idea you mention. I feel like we should be using the minimum area for what we produce to avoid harm to natural systems. I think its a no-brainer from the perspective of power, but issues relating to farming and town planning need more research.

      I’m not sure I entirely agree with your final point. I think that conflation of nuclear power and nuclear bombs is one reason for public suspicion. At least in the UK there were many councils in the 80’s that were in favour of nuclear disarmament that saw nuclear power as part of the same thing.

      Also events like the Chernobyl disaster live long in the memory. However, people who are pro-nuclear should be able to argue that dirty energy production techniques (e.g. Coal) kill more people each year than Chernobyl ever did.

      Finally can you point me in the direction of your analysis? Is it on a blog or a paper? I’d be interested to give it a read.

  3. Germany is not the best country when it comes to the share renewables in the energy production (or energy use).

    Germany can barely produce 25% of its electricity that way, but that’s only part of all energy use. But even in the electricity sector, Germany is not the best, Sweden, Switzerland & Norway do better, with Norway at 100% hydro!

    And even then, not all renewable sources are equal. Hydro can totally displace fossil fuels because it is either predictable (run of the mill) or dispatchable (dams). Wind on the other hand is intermittent and is only a fuel saver today. That’s part of the reason why Danemark & Germany have high CO2 emissions per capita while being heavy users of wind

    1. I concede you are right about Germany. Sweden is the EU country that gets the highest percentage of its energy from renewables at ~47%.

      Norway is not 100% hydro though. In 2008 it was close at ~98% but this has since dropped to about 36%. Switzerland actually seems to be doing better with about 59% of energy produced from renewables.

      While I agree that these countries are doing better at cutting carbon emissions that some other EU countries, they are doing it using a method which may well screw up aquatic ecosystems. In general I would rather countries invested more heavily in nuclear than hydroelectricity purely from this perspective.

      On your last point, I agree that not all renewables are made equal. We need to be smart and get the right mix.

      1. Your Norway claim is very surprising. According to the latest EIA update hydroelectric is still at 95% there :

        As Germany and the United Kingdom both planned in mid-2012 to connect their grid to plug into that, they’d be very disappointed to find out the resource has suddenly disappeared. Both don’t seem to realize the 30 GW of Norway are actually not that much larger than the 27 GW of France, so they are strong reason to be doubtful Norwegian really can feed whole other countries from their grid.

      2. OK, really sorry if I sounded aggressive. The Wikipedia page refers to this source where the *real* mix is the figure down the page, marked “Norsk produksjon 2010” or “Fysisk forbruk i Noreg 2010”.
        As you can see 94.8% of energy locally produced was still hydro, which represent 84.3% of the electricity on the grid when counting 11% of gross import at 14.7 TWh. However the net import is only 7.5 Twh.

        The explanation of this strange number is that a major part of the electricity produced in Norway has been sold as Guarantees of Origin , and if you buy electricity outside of that, it’s considered to have be produced only from the other production means that are used in Europe. The end result in this crazy virtual mix where 21% of electricity is supposed to come from Nuclear when there’s not a single nuclear plant in Norway.

        This system does not really convince me. If the electricity had to be physically transported, it’d be good, but the idea of selling renewable electricity that actually doesn’t move, given the level of exchange, is actually misleading IMO.

      3. It’s fine I never took it as aggressive. It seems like an odd system that I can’t really get my head round. Either was Norway is fairly clean. I am not sure however that it is a case that could be replicated all over the place. Neither am I sure that I would choose hydro as a means of powering an idealised nation due to its dramatic effect on aquatic ecosystems.

  4. Fully agree that simply banning nuclear from one day to the next is a simplistic view (probably adopted as a political strategy after the Japan tsunami, rather than for real environmental concerns).
    However, shouldn’t we include RISKS in our equation ? We cannot simply neglect how much nuclear accidents have devastating effects on enormous geographical and temporal scales for the sake that it efficiently provides energy. So far, nuclear safety policies are far from being convincing. In Belgium for example, when it was realized that nuclear plants were under the safety requirements, these latter ones were lowered, instead of solving the safety issue. Moreover, shouldn’t this debate in first instance question our dependency on energy linked to our overconsumption, no longer assuring a propotionate level of well-being ?

    1. I agree to a certain extent.

      My feeling is that the risks are not too great when you compare them to the risks of fossil fuels. I think there are potential problems with nuclear though and agree that safety standards should be as high as possible.

      And yes we should reduce our need for power. However, that will take a while. At the moment we need to work at making the power we use cleaner as well as reducing consumption. Very few global problems are likely to be fixed by just implementing one policy, we need lots of them that will work in a complementary way.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s