You may have heard, as Scientific American reports, that the “U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) voted to allow construction of two new nuclear reactors” in Georgia. It’s a pretty big deal, since Jimmy Carter was President the last time a commercial reactor was approved.
As the LA Times notes, the new Georgia plant
is supposed to have all of the technology and safeguards to avoid a meltdown like the one that occurred at Fukushima, which was hit by a tsunami after a massive earthquake and lost electrical power to keep its reactor cool. The Westinghouse system is supposed to be able to endure a complete blackout and safely shut down the reactor with passive cooling systems, said company spokesman Vaughn Gilbert.
Of course, for those who are opposed to nuclear power based on safety concerns, what happened at Fukushima remains frightful proof of the dangers. But as George Monbiot argued in a series of columns last year, the disaster could also serve as an argument for the technology’s relative safety.
Over at my latest Yale Forum post, Nullius in Verba makes a similar case. I often don’t see eye to eye with Nullius, but in this comment he shows the skewed risk perception many have of nuclear power:
Fukushima was actually an excellent demonstration of just how safe nuclear energy actually is.
Let’s compare it to something concrete: is your house “safe”? When you sit in home, are you nervous about having tons of brick and concrete suspended a few feet above your head? You would probably say “yes, of course it’s safe”, but let’s judge it by the same standard we judge nuclear power.
You claim your house is “safe”, but if you hit it with a magnitude 9 earthquake, and then shortly after smash a 30 foot high wall of water moving at a hundred miles an hour into it, will it still be standing? Or will the whole thing collapse on top of you?
In Japan, something like 10,000 people sat in their “safe” houses died. And left a landscape strewn with rubble which is going to cost billions to clean up. And a tsunami leaves the land tainted with salt, and no crops will grow until it is gone.
So is a nuclear power station that was still standing and killed less than a handful more dangerous than houses which collapsed and killed thousands? Or, if you want to look at it that way, more dangerous than building thousands of houses on an island prone to earthquakes and tsunamis?
The thinking appears to be that it is, because within a few days of the disaster, none of the news reports mentioned the tens of thousands left homeless or burying their dead, it was all about the nuclear reactor. The tiniest trace of radioactivity anywhere was picked up and breathlessly reported around the world, although the fact that raw sewage was floating down the streets was not. Sewage is more dangerous, it kills more people, but they’re more scared of the radioactivity.
So that’s why I say “relatively safe”. It’s safe, relative to all the other risky things that we consider safe. It’s not absolutely safe ““ nothing is ““ but the risks are far lower than for many other dangers that we consider it acceptable to take.
It would be interesting to know where the anti-nuclear denial of science comes from, political elites, or perhaps the coal mining industry? How should science communicators talk about nuclear energy to overcome this block? Or should we sit back and do nothing, and wait for energy prices to skyrocket before offering it again?
It’s an interesting comparison, isn’t it?
It’s really a shame that the U.S. environmental community doesn’t have anyone with the chops or reputation of George Monbiot, the popular British columnist. Monbiot, who has a high profile perch at the Guardian, combines essential talents for a communicator: He is lucid, engaging, and smart. He is also not afraid to call out his own constituency.
For example, Monbiot this year has shredded European greens for their anti-science position on nuclear power, and laid out the implications of this for climate change. (I wrote about his methodical takedowns here.) He’s at it again in his latest column, with a damning indictment that begins:
It’s a devastating admission to have to make, especially during the climate talks in Durban. But there would be no point in writing this column if I were not prepared to confront harsh truths. This year, the environmental movement to which I belong has done more harm to the planet’s living systems than climate change deniers have ever achieved.
As a result of shutting down its nuclear programme in response to green demands, Germany will produce an extra 300m tonnes of carbon dioxide between now and 2020. That’s almost as much as all the European savings resulting from the energy efficiency directive. Other countries are now heading the same way. These decisions are the result of an almost medievel misrepresentation of science and technology. For while the greens are right about most things, our views on nuclear power have been shaped by weapons-grade woo.
The U.S. green movement isn’t infected with the same strain of anti-nuclear hysteria (at least not anymore) as its European cousins. But it’s still surprising to see baseless nuclear fear-mongering from self-professed champions of science who counsel urgent action on climate change. When it comes to peddling disinformation on risks and harms associated with nuclear power, the anti-nuclear crowd, as Monbiot says in his column, is second to none:
Anti-nuclear campaigners have generated as much mumbo jumbo as creationists, anti-vaccine scaremongers, homeopaths and climate change deniers. In all cases, the scientific process has been thrown into reverse: people have begun with their conclusions, then frantically sought evidence to support them.
Remember, this is coming from a card-carrying environmentalist, who worries as deeply as anyone about the health of the planet and the threats posed to it by climate change.
Were there only more like him, speaking truth to green woo.
Dig into the political history of nuclear power, as I did for “The Fallout,” published in the magazine this week, and one swiftly discovers that the success and failure of this technology hinges to an extraordinary degree on the political culture of the governments behind it.
–Evan Osnos in the The New Yorker.
[UPDATE: In the comments, Kate Sheppard has responded to this post, saying that I (and William Connolley) have "grossly misconstrued" what she wrote in her Guardian article. Here is my explanation and apology to Kate.]
In an article about the nuclear implications of this week’s East Coast earthquake, Kate Sheppard writes:
Anybody spot the problem? William Connolley did and he’s all over it:
The tsunami killed 20k people, or whatever. Fukushima killed no-one, directly, though it wouldn’t be surprising if it kills a few eventually. So why was Fukushima an “even bigger tragedy”?
It’s gonna hurt, reports the Guardian:
The International Energy Agency has warned that the world faces higher energy costs, more carbon emissions and greater supply uncertainty if it turns its back on nuclear.
Nobuo Tanaka, the executive director, signalled the organisation was likely to cut its estimates of atomic power when it finalises its latest World Energy Outlook this year.
The IEA previously believed nuclear would generate 14% of all electricity by 2035 but this figure is under revision in the light of Germany and Japan abandoning the sector following the Fukushima crisis. This week, in a referendum, Italy also voted overwhelmingly ““ and against the advice of Silvio Berlusconi’s government ““ to reject any return to nuclear power.
“If nuclear is not 14% but say 10% then it means more gas and more coal as well as more renewables”, said Tanaka.
“It will cost much more, be less sustainable and there will be less security. These are the consequences of lower nuclear,” he said at a World of Energy prize giving on the sidelines of the St Petersburg International Economic Forum.
In the UK, George Monbiot and Mark Lynas have stepped into the fray on the nuclear issue. In the U.S., there is conspicuous silence from the climate change-concerned community on the implications of the nuclear backlash. Why, when so many of them know better?
I’d say they are either being cowardly or are in denial.
So it’s official: Germany is banning nuclear power. Those who applaud this decision are obviously taking the long-term view–they see a clean energy age on the horizon.
But in the short term, let’s be clear-eyed about the tradeoffs. For starters, their are potentially huge climate consequences. I’m curious to hear what climate policy wonks and activists think of this.
Secondly, there are geopolitical implications, which has Russia smiling today.
The law of unintended consequences might also turn out to be ironic, according to this analysis:
Eleven years to replace an energy source that provides nearly a quarter of its electricity is no small feat. It’s particularly difficult for Germany because it must adhere to European CO2 emissions caps. Meaning Germany has to find a low-carbon source of energy.
In the short term, Germany, most likely will import nuclear power from France and the Czech Republic. This will place pressure on the existing nuclear power supply and drive up costs as a result. Consumers will feel the pinch. For big industrial companies, it will feel more like a punch.
Has Germany blundered? Or made a bold decision that will eventually pay off for the environment?
We are living in strange times. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a conservative politician and until a few months ago, a longtime supporter of nuclear power, has vowed to shutter her nation’s 17 nuclear reactors and make renewable power, such as wind and solar, Germany’s dominant source of energy by 2030.
Meanwhile, staunch British environmentalist George Monbiot, the popular Guardian columnist and a former nuclear foe, has recently argued in a series of forceful columns that the nuclear risks are overstated and that ramping up nuclear power is the only way to meet the world’s rising energy needs and also reduce carbon emissions.
Let me acknowledge that they are not equal players. Merkel is a head of a state, who has the power to make government policy. Monbiot is a pundit, who has the power to influence public debate.
How did we get here?
Well, Merkel’s and Monbiot’s respective transformations were each set in motion by the recent tsunami in Japan and the resulting disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi complex, which still has not been resolved. They have viewed the accident through very different lenses, however.
To Monbiot, an “old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami.” And yet, for everything that’s gone wrong, “as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation,” he wrote in March. In that column, he concluded:
Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small. The crisis at Fukushima has converted me to the cause of nuclear power.
Merkel’s reaction was just the opposite, and it is startling, given that, as Christian SchwÃ¤gerl recounts in this Yale E360 article, “Only last year, she [Merkel] fought to extend the operation time of Germany’s reactors by 12 years on average, against fierce opposition from the left and environmental groups.” In his piece, SchwÃ¤gerl tries to deciper Merkel’s about-face on nuclear power:
In my view, the key to the chancellor’s radical turnaround lies deep in her past. In the 1980s, well before she became a politician, Merkel worked in the former East Germany as a researcher in quantum chemistry, examining the probability of events in the subatomic domain. Her years of research instilled in her the conviction that she has a very good sense of how likely events are, not only in physics but also in politics. Opponents of nuclear energy were “bad at assessing risks,” she told me in the 1990s.
Then came the March disaster at the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant, which made the chancellor realize that she had been terribly wrong about the probability of a nuclear catastrophe in a highly advanced nation. Merkel’s scientific sense of probability and rationality was shaken to the core. If this was possible, she reasoned, something similar might happen in Germany “” not a tsunami, of course, but something equally unexpected. In her view, the field trial of nuclear energy had failed. As a self-described rationalist, she felt compelled to act.
“It’s over,” she told one of her advisers immediately after watching on TV as the roof of a Fukushima reactor blew off. “Fukushima has forever changed the way we define risk in Germany.”
Meanwhile, back in England, Monbiot had launched himself on a fact-finding mission to reassess the risks of nuclear power. He came to a completely different conclusion than Merkel. In a column last month, Monbiot says he “made a deeply troubling discovery”:
The anti-nuclear movement to which I once belonged has misled the world about the impacts of radiation on human health. The claims we have made are ungrounded in science, unsupportable when challenged, and wildly wrong. We have done other people, and ourselves, a terrible disservice.
Monbiot’s sudden embrace of nuclear power is largely driven by his concern over climate change. His is not the first high profile conversion. In recent years, Stewart Brand, an icon of the environmental movement and the founder of Whole Earth Catalog, has famously become a big booster of nuclear power. Climate change has also made a believer out of NASA climate scientist James Hansen. While I wouldn’t put him in the same boosterish category as Brand, Hansen is not shy about talking up the need for nuclear power.
In his recent book, Storms of My Grandchildren, Hansen writes that, “it seems clear that efficiency and renewable energies will not be sufficient to allow phaseout of coal.” Like Monbiot, Hansen doesn’t believe that clean tech is ready for primetime–at least not at the global level.
But it’s also not ready to power England’s energy needs, according to a group of advisors to the UK government, known as the Committee on Climate Change (CCC). Earlier this week, the group issued a report that said the fastest way to a low-carbon future for England would be to include nuclear power. It projects that by 2030, about 40 percent of the UK’s energy needs could be met by nuclear, and 40 percent by renewables. As CCC’s chief executive David Kennedy told BBC News, “nuclear at the moment looks like the lowest cost low-carbon option.”
In contrast, Germany’s Merkel has put forward a plan that takes nuclear power out of the picture altogether. As SchwÃ¤ger writes in his article:
The numbers that circulate in Berlin’s government district at the moment are staggering. Merkel’s administration plans to shut down the nuclear reactors “” which in recent years reliably provided up to a quarter of Germany’s huge needs as baseload electricity “” by 2022 at the latest. It wants to double the share of renewable energy to 35 percent of consumption in 2020, 50 percent in 2030, 65 percent in 2040, and more than 80 percent in 2050. At the same time, the chancellor vows to cut CO2 emissions (compared to 1990 levels) by 40 percent in 2020, by 55 percent in 2030, and by more than 80 percent in 2050.
Is this realistic? “The new course is a huge challenge in terms of cost and feasibility,” SchwÃ¤ger concludes. He does the math and finds that “three quarters of Germany’s electricity sources will have to be replaced by green technology within just a few decades, if the nuclear phase-out and the CO2 goals are to be accomplished.”
It seems to me that Merkel, in removing nuclear power from the energy equation, is perhaps making her ambitious plan more challenging and less doable than it need be. The no nukes strategy also isn’t necessarily a path that some experts believe should be emulated on a global level. As MIT’s John Deutch said in 2009:
Taking nuclear power off the table as a viable alternative will prevent the global community from achieving long-term gains in the control of carbon dioxide emissions.
In yesterday’s Financial Times, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of The Breakthrough Institute echo Deutch:
Put simply, there is no credible path to stabilising, much less reducing, global carbon emissions without more nuclear power. We are a planet of 6bn people, heading toward 9bn. Even with better energy efficiency, global energy demand will soon double, perhaps triple. Without nuclear power, the vast majority of that demand will be met by fossil energy.
If there is a middle ground “” one that includes nuclear and renewables, then it appears that Japan is vowing to stake it out. Despite the catastrophes it’s been hit with, Japan has signaled that it isn’t about to stop using nuclear power. But at the same time, Japan’s prime minister has just announced that renewables and conservation will become two new pillars of Japanese energy policy.
Time will tell which of these countries “” England, Germany, or Japan “” have charted the quickest path to a low carbon future that can meet all their energy needs.
Eduardo Zorita packs a lot into this post. I’m not sure it coheres but it’s quite interesting.
He touches on the importance of expert authorities and the IPCC and muses on “the interaction between technology and democracy”:
We have now several new technologies that have been developed in the last few decades, which the individuals of the world are mostly enjoying, but which Western democratic societies are still grappling with, either to assimilate them fully or to design legal safeguards to avoid their most nasty consequences if left unchecked. To name a few: the internet, nuclear power, genetically modified crops. In the case of the internet, it seems clear that its benefits vastly outstrip its risks and there has barely been a public discussion about the possibility of forbidding the internet. A very old, but very powerful and also very risky piece of human technology, was incorporated to virtually all modern societies, and it also is a software technology: money. Clearly, money has been the source of immense human suffering but its benefits are so incommensurable that nobody seriously promotes the idea of prohibiting money, although some libertarian societies in the early 20th century did. These technologies, along with automobiles or mobile phones, were simply adopted without much societal discussion. They just sneaked into life, and when vigilantes hurried to point out the risks, everyone else was already enjoying the benefits.
Perhaps the nuclear power lobby adopted the wrong strategy, and instead of building large 1-gigawatt plants to deliver as much energy as possible, nuclear power could have started with small, portable reactors, scattered all over the place. The failure of one of them would not have presented a serious environmental problem and once there, societies would not like to be weaned off cheap and continuous nuclear power even when confronted by a manageable and continuous stream of casualties, as it now happens with oil, coal or road traffic. The benefits of starting small and grow later are clearly that by the time you need political approval you are already too widespread, too necessary.
On a related note: in the department of nuclear mea culpas, here’s Mark Lynas in The Economist:
I entirely understand the arguments espoused by anti-nuclear campaigners, especially because I used to make them myself for many years. Personally I am embarrassed not that I changed my mind on nuclear, but that it took me so long to do so. I ignored overwhelming scientific evidence that nuclear is far safer than most people suppose, and in the process insisted on solutions to global warming which are neither technically feasible nor politically realistic. I would like to apologise for that.
Back to the Helen & George show and for them, perhaps the behind the scenes version.
At Climate Central, I take stock of Monbiot’s recent onslaught against the anti-nuclear movement. Check it out and chime in over there.
P.S.- The RSS feed for Frontier Earth is now fixed. Also, comments will be approved promptly (except when I’m asleep!).