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!).
George Monbiot is on quite a tear. His latest riposte begins:
Over the last fortnight I’ve 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.
Today’s unambiguous rebuke to the anti-nuclear wing of the environmental movement (coming on the heels of Monbiot’s recent string of pro-nuclear columns) represents a serious challenge to climate advocates who don’t support nuclear power as a bridge fuel until renewables can be scaled up to help meet the meet the world’s energy needs.
It’s a interesting double-bind for environmentalists, of course: if large scientific collaborations are corrupt (as is claimed about nuclear) that leaves large scientific collaborations on climate change (which have essentially identical governance and participating institutions) where, exactly? Conversely, if climate change is bolstered by “listen to the science!” then that leaves the nuclear science where, exactly? Watching a man struggle with cognitive dissonance is always amusing, but in this case strangely moving: the first paragraph has the decency to admit that when it came to wild scaremongering, George was in the front ranks.
Monbiot is in for another wild ride this week. This one is going to be interesting.
Well, George, I did warn you.
Here is Monbiot, sounding gobsmacked by the outcry to his recent pro-nuclear power column:
The accusations have been so lurid that I had to read my article again to reassure myself that I hadn’t written the things that so many of my correspondents say I wrote.
Not everyone is foaming at the mouth, though. One Monbiot fan tweets a great zinger: