I’m almost weary of blogging about nuclear power. But others are still going strong. Take the Globe and Mail’s Doug Saunders, who writes this week that we shouldn’t even think of abandoning the technology. Such enthusiasm is particularly curious because he glosses over the Achilles heel of nukes — the cost — and Canada has one of the most expensive varieties of nuclear reactors around.
I can only assume that Saunders hasn’t done enough research, because if he had he would never come to conclusions such as this:
It may be possible in Europe and North America to talk about reducing consumer demand for electricity and using alternatives instead of nukes. But none of that applies in Asia, Africa or South America, where the most pressing demand in the next two decades will be to turn three billion poor or impoverished people into energy consumers – ideally, high-efficiency, low-waste consumers, but certainly people able to have street lighting and refrigerators.
To do this without nuclear power would either be ecologically catastrophic, because it would rely on more coal-fired generation than the world has seen, or murderously inhumane, because it would raise energy prices to levels that would keep people in terrible poverty.
The fact is, it is trying to build nuclear reactors that would “would keep people in terrible poverty.” The ever-rising costs of nukes is not a secret. I and many others have written about them ad nauseum. They are so pricey, and the economics so uncertain, that no private-sector financing can be found. Gas-fired plants, whatever their merits, are cheaper. Coal is cheaper. Wind is cheaper, and there are conditions that make solar power cheaper. Yes, I know that sounds crazy, but it’s true. Granted, solar PV doesn’t supply a base-load supply, but solar thermal can.
Why on Earth would you ask anyone, let alone a developing nation, to turn to the most expensive form of power generation when there are cheaper alternatives?
Saunders also makes the inaccurate assumption that only nuclear offers the appropriate combination of low-carbon and practical electricity. But as has been made abundantly clear, we can’t wait for all those mythical new nukes to come online. If we are genuinely concerned about reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, we have to replace fossil-fuel plants with zero-carbon source of electricity much faster than we can realistically expect to build nuclear reactors.
This isn’t just the opinion of dyed-in-the-wool environmentalists. Take the analysis of one Alan Madian, a senior adviser to The Brattle Group, an economics think tank on which dozens of major corporations and countries rely for evidence-based advice. Madian writes in a recent report:
Given the length of time it takes to license and build nuclear plants and the limited near-term capacity, nuclear generation cannot be expected to contribute significantly to U.S. carbon emission reduction goals prior to 2030 except by life extension and capacity expansion of existing plants.
If we haven’t begun to reduce emissions, not just cap them, by 2030, we might as well start pouring trillions into geoengineering and adaptation schemes because there will be no other options available.
All this is so obvious that it is surprising how tenacious is the idea that we need to expand nuclear power. Now, one can argue that we shouldn’t shut down existing nukes. Most of the carbon emissions and the bulk of the cost come with construction, so they should be allowed to continue to supply power for as long as they can be safely run. Maybe that’s what Saunders is trying to say, but if so, he should be more explicit.
I have not gone nuclear. But, as long as the following four conditions are met, I will no longer oppose atomic energy.
1. Its total emissions – from mine to dump – are taken into account, and demonstrate that it is a genuinely low-carbon option.
2. We know exactly how and where the waste is to be buried.
3. We know how much this will cost and who will pay.
4. There is a legal guarantee that no civil nuclear materials will be diverted for military purposes.
Yes, well, this is a bit disingenuous, isn’t it? Nuclear power’s carbon emissions aren’t zero but pretty low, so that’s not really an issue. But we’re nowhere near agreeing (in the US or UK) on where to put the waste, costs remain undefined but are certainly daunting. And as for legal guarantees to prevent military diversion, now we’re into the realm of wishful thinking and pure speculation.
There are forms of nuclear power that, in theory, can meet Monbiot’s four conditions. Thorium reactors, for example. But again, they are at least a couple of decades away, as no one has actually built one yet — not even a test reactor. So is Monbiot trying to have his cake and eat it, too? All he’s doing is muddying the waters.
On a side note, it seems to be fashionable for veteran environmentalists to declare that they have grown up and now accept the logic of nuclear power — distancing themselves from the naivete of their youth (Steward Brand, I’m talking about you). But it’s just as likely that they been worn down by relentless propaganda from nuclear power supporters. As Joe Romm puts it, more or less, there never was and never will be a nuclear renaissance. Get over it, folks.