16 June 2009: A new look at nuclear

On Saturday, I was on a panel at the World Science Festival in New York, with James Hansen of NASA and three others. Hansen is one of the leading scientists on climate. It was his testimony to Al Gore’s Congressional Committee in the late 1980s that first woke up the world to the dangers, 90 years after the Swedish scientist, Svante Arrhenius, outlined the theory that carbon emissions would lead to an increase in global temperatures.

Hansen’s position on nuclear can be summarised very simply: it’s better than coal. He is worried that Obama’s ‘cap-and-trade’ approach will lock the US into coal for decades and, therefore, he would much prefer a carbon tax.

The panellists were asked to address the ‘lingering problems’, including waste. Nuclear waste will remain radioactive for tens of thousands of years, so “lingering” is an accurate description. However, coal results in solid waste in the form of ash, and Saturday’s New York Times contained an article about serious pollution and environmental damage from coal ash dumped in Tennessee (see Alabama: Dump to Take Coal Ash From Tennessee Spill). And the gaseous waste from coal, in the form of carbon emissions, is a much greater danger than nuclear waste. Essentially, the argument is simple – it is better to keep waste on or in the Earth’s surface than to send it up into the atmosphere.

My view, which I explained to the audience, is that nuclear power is not only less damaging than coal – it is also less damaging than oil. Surface transport must run instead on electricity. The New York Times also carried an article about major pollution resulting from Chevron’s oil operations in Ecuador (see In Ecuador, Resentment of an Oil Company Oozes). Electric vehicles have partly been overlooked because of the dream that transport can run on hydrogen. However, hydrogen would require a completely new distribution infrastructure and is not easy to use as a transport fuel. For example, the US Space Shuttle launch was postponed on Saturday because of a leak in the hydrogen fuel cycle. The Obama Administration is determined to reduce US oil imports, primarily for energy security reasons. This the reason for its continuing support for biofuels like ethanol from corn, which are worse for the climate than oil (see 4 May 2009: Obama is very good but not perfect). However, Obama is also promoting electric vehicles, as is the UK government, and this is the main reason why new nuclear power stations should be supported.

One of the panellists is working to develop ‘4th generation nuclear power stations’, which are updated fast breeder reactors and use 99% of the energy in the uranium, compared to around 1% in existing reactors. However, nuclear power is only needed for the next 30 years. By 2040, the world economy can be 100% renewable, harnessing concentrated solar, wind, wave, tidal and run-of-river hydro. 4th generation nuclear reactors, like nuclear fusion (which has been 20 years away for the last 20 years, and is now 30 years way), are not necessary and money should not be spent developing them.

One argument often used against nuclear power is that it diverts effort and money away from energy efficiency and renewables. This is potentially true. However, France, the country with the most nuclear reactors and the strongest pro-nuclear public policy, generates 11% of its electricity from renewables. The US, which does not have a clear pro-nuclear federal policy, generates only 9% from renewables, and the UK, which until recently had an anti-nuclear policy, only 5%. Finland, currently constructing a new nuclear power station, generates 27% from renewables.

The most powerful argument against nuclear power is that it contributes to nuclear proliferation, and the news this weekend was dominated by Iran. It is obviously wrong to argue that nuclear power is necessary for the US or Europe, but unacceptable for Iran. One panellist works for the International Atomic Energy Agency and said that, later this week, its board will consider Obama’s proposals (drawn from the Kissinger/Nunn initiative) for an internationally controlled nuclear fuel bank. That proposal, coupled with Obama’s promise to begin negotiations to eliminate global nuclear weapons, is the only way to build nuclear power stations without spreading nuclear weapons.

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  1. Terrorist threat aside – I think the long term costs of start-up and clean up are very significant ‘downers’ to the nuclear case, along with the inevitable examples of human error leading to nuclear leaks.

    We must focus our attention on changing behaviours for an urgent reduction in energy consumption, efficiency and renewables?!

  2. Hydrogen Fuel is very promising, I only hope that we can mass produce soon enough.

    Stephen Tindale replies: “Hydrogen is not a separate fuel source – it is either extracted from fossil fuels or obtained by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen, which requires electricity. However, hydrogen is a good means of storing energy from intermittent sources such as wind. The sensible way to use hydrogen is to built a gasometer near a wind farm, use electricity to split water when the wind is blowing and the power not needed, and then use the hydrogen to generate electricity when the wind isn’t blowing (or is blowing too hard) and power is needed. It is not sensible to use hydrogen to fuel vehicles, as it is difficult to transport and would require very expensive new infrastructure. Surface transport should instead run on electricity.”

  3. hydrogen fueled vehicles are the best but they are still not widely available.`-“

  4. I sort of found your blog post accidentally, but your website captured my eye and that i thought that I might post tell you that I really like it.

  5. cheers

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