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Blog item: On Being A Pro-Nuclear Environmentalist

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17 comments, last: Jan-14-2011   Add a comment   Author:  chefurka (Oct-7-2010)
Categories: Global Warming, Pollution, Renewable Energy Sources

A scattering of environmentalists believe nuclear energy is essential in order to beat global warming and greenhouse gasesIn the green community it's not terribly fashionable (to put it mildly) to favour nuclear power.  Despite the support of such luminaries as the developer of the Gaia hypothesis James Lovelock and the British environmental writer George Monbiot, nuclear power is widely regarded as beyond the pale, one of the enemies of the environment rather than one of its friends.  We all know the Chernobyl / Three Mile Island history as well as the deep and justified mistrust of large corporations that drives this perception.  Some might even say that the term "pro-nuclear environmentalist" is an oxymoron - that it's impossible to be truly "for" the environment if one is not also "against" nuclear power.

Nevertheless, after more than a decade of careful fence-sitting, I've recently come down solidly in favour of nuclear power.  What follows is a gentle jeremiad that lays out my reasoning.

Let's start with my two foundational assessments:

1. Global warming is the largest biophysical threat humanity has ever faced. It's caused by anthropogenic carbon dioxide, which makes fossil fuels an enemy of all life.

2. Global warming is not a future threat. The current (rising) level of atmospheric CO2 tells us that the threat has arrived.

It stands to reason that if we wish to mitigate CO2 impacts we must reduce the amount of CO2 we are generating from our energy production.  We can do this both by reducing our energy consumption and by finding ways to generate it without adding to the CO2 burden.  However, even if we can immediately reduce our energy consumption we must also immediately change our energy mix to one that generates less CO2 overall. The urgency is because of point #2 - immediate threats require immediate responses.

Because of the urgency of the problem, we must use every energy tool at our disposal to cut our CO2 production immediately. Our toolkit must include every low-carbon energy possibility. The current candidates are solar (thermal and photovoltaic), wind, hydro (both conventional and Run of River), tidal power, biomass, geothermal and nuclear.

My decision about where to throw my support is governed by point #2. Because we face an immediate threat, I strongly favour technologies that can have an immediate impact on the energy mix.  The more distant the return of a technology or the lower the current level of implementation of a technology, the more of a discount I apply to its value.

The technologies I value most highly, in order of descending priority, are: nuclear; conventional hydro; wind; solar thermal, biomass and solar PV.

I do not think that the dangers of nuclear power outweigh its benefits, especially when considered against the overwhelming threat of CO2. In fact I think the planetary dangers of nuclear power are many orders of magnitude (that's tens of thousands of times) less than the dangers of CO2. See point #1.

The other sources all have various problems.  Conventional hydro and solar thermal have limitations in terms of site availability.  Solar PV still suffers from cost, land use and intermittency problems.  The value of Run of River hydro, geothermal and tidal power are down in the noise at this point due to their currently low actual energy production. The value of wind power could eventually exceed nuclear power, but it will probably take 15 years to get there.  We need to take action now, and what we do within the next 5 years will be crucial. See point #2.

Energy efficiency always is the cheapest way to reduce CO2 production, provided we can avoid a rebound effect (aka a "Jevons paradox"). Efficiency should be pursued at least as vigorously as new energy sources.

Nuclear power integrates easily into the existing electricity grid structure, the plant designs are well understood, plants can be built out quickly, and the demonstrated level of risk, compared to atmospheric CO2, is negligible. It's a win, at least until wind is producing 15-20 times its current amount of electricity.

My conclusion is that if we do not build out large amounts of nuclear power, we have no hope of abating CO2 production for at least the next 10 years. See point #2.

Now, all the foregoing depends on us (the global "us") doing enough in the next 5 to 10 years to tip the rate of production of CO2 onto a downward slope. If we cannot create the will to do that, then this entire discussion is moot. Personally I don't think we'll get enough public consensus or freedom from corporate influence to make that possible. So where I ultimately come from on all this is:

Due to the structure and functional requirements of our civilization none of this is possible. That makes these discussions the equivalent of a dog gnawing on a bone: it's something fun to do while we wait for the next meal, but it isn't going to save the world. So in light of that, we should each do what we think is appropriate: try to save the world, retreat from it, get on with raising our families, meditate, search for higher meaning, or just try to have a bit of fun. 

The world ends in every moment, then begins again in the next. Sic Transit Gloria Mundi.

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Comment by: Locomotiveman (Jan-14-2011)   
Cognitive dissonance. def. "The confused mental condition that results from holding contradictory beliefs simultaneously". That appears to be a firmly entrenched malady of late. ie. "I think I shall jet over to Europe, take the train to Zurich and do an Eco-friendly Hike of the Alps." or "Alas, The Polar Icecap is melting, let's go to the nearest air-conditioned movie theater and watch 'An Inconvenient Truth." Or this perhaps? "I am going to an IvyLeague school on my parent's StockMarket profits to become educated in low-impact sustainability". or worse, a 'Green' factory?...oh, please. I am indeed perplexed as to how an intellectually honest conversation can begin in the face of such global affectations. Am I a guilty contributer to "a" problem? Yes, several times several discreet problems. But what ultimately, for eternity, is THE problem we're trying to find an answer to in all of this? That is a far more complex problem for a mere mortal such as I to ponder. Peace and Good Vibrations. Locomotiveman
Comment by: City Worker (Jan-14-2011)   

I see the situation as either unique or as requiring a bit of a “quantum leap” in concern. Those who are part of one’s world, from the time of cavemen onward – those who had to be defended/preserved – were always ones currently living (and, as an afterthought, future generations). The current situation is almost only for future generations.
Comment by: Locomotiveman (Jan-14-2011)   

Agreed, discussing is not the same a DOING. My temperment/perspective nonetheless forces me to continually ask, "A million years from now, what will it matter?" Not a hundred years...a MILLION. It's the geologist in me. Humano-centric thinking seems to be much akin to a self-absorbed Adonis preening before the mirror. Peace and Good Vibrations, Locomotiveman
Comment by:  PT (David Alexander) (Jan-14-2011)   Web site

We continue to discuss, and very little has changed. The problem is that, due to tipping points (feedback loops), by the time the problem is SO serious that no one can ignore it, it will be too late. That is how it seems, anyway...
Comment by:  Locomotiveman (Tom) (Jan-3-2011)   

City Worker,
Hi. You ask if perhaps the more developed countries (US,France etc) would 'hoard' Nuclear energy? My observations come from the luxury of traveling to all corners of the globe. Human population growth I've witnessed firsthand has been so dramatic in my adult lifetime that I wince when I revisit places I've returned to since the 1960's. Human beings are over-running the 'Petri dish' called Earth. Period. I've seen it. New slums don't lie.

For now, the destitute 'Have nots' want food, water, shelter from the elements and little else. The 'Have's' want more. Electric grid energy pressures will be no different methinks. The voracious appetite of the Asian and South American economies for energy and food may explode in my lifetime; and I'm a retired guy!! World-wide, there is about 800+ electric powerplants on the books for future construction right now, 2011. Most are coal-fired, Kyoto Accord nonwithstanding. The least of our worries are whether they will be Nuclear or Coal-fired. The fact any construction is comtemplated in the first place should be of greater concern.

Young women prior to having their first child typically do not perform a Risk/Reward Analysis; especially in a setting of material deprivation. Billions of youths in currently 'poor' countries worldwide will dictate the course of human consumptive habits; and human population trends point to huge biosphere pressures. Any and all gains in food and energy production perhaps will be savaged by the sheer numbers of human beings yearning for more comfort. Agonizing about Nuclear vs. Whatever power feels akin to homeless people worrying about a Mega-Meteor strike from outerspace. I feel intellectually inadequate for such agony in the face of the existing population numbers.

Peace and Good Vibrations. Locomotiveman
Comment by: City Worker (Jan-2-2011)   

I suppose I’m an optimist. I believe mankind will “wake up” to reality and turn to sustainable energy before it’s too late, without turning to nuclear energy. Upon learning that some nuclear waste has half-lives of BILLIONS of years, I am more convinced that the use of nuclear energy is a very dangerous way to go. I think about the cases where parents, who appear to “buy” their children things like cars and houses, are, in reality, burdening their children with backbreaking or impossible loans and mortgages. Who will be earth’s “children” one hundred thousand, one million, or one billion years from now? Will they be able to “pay the mortgage” for the nuclear energy that WE would be using now?
Also, let’s say, the United States and, maybe other major countries of the world want to lead by example, the world in turning from fossil fuel. I can see them willingly leading in the direction of sustainable energy. But the risks related to nuclear energy are so great, I can’t see them willingly agreeing to its use everywhere. So, what would result… the United States taking a grossly disproportionate share of energy for itself, just a different kind, and an attempt at restricting places around the world from the use of practically any energy?
Comment by:  Locomotiveman (Tom) (Jan-2-2011)   

Boreal born, Paul, Wavehunter William, and all,
Hello. Consider this for a moment. The passing of the human species from this Earth need not contemplated as a horrific event akin to deliberate malicious act. Yes, Nuclear power may, in fact, be more ecologically benign in the Short-term yet may have catastrophic consequences Long-term. With that I tend to agree. Sadly, the large uranium ore mines and associated facilities have a large carbon footprint also. Our true dilemma could be more a one of perspective than a matter of technology.

If we readers can accept the fact that good, decent, and well-intentioned people of all persuasions were trying to IMPROVE the human condition with the invention of electricity; and for that matter life-saving vaccines and abundant food sources perhaps then we can reach an inner sense of peace with the moment at hand.

If we, as individuals, can cherish and treat with respect everything we come in contact on a daily basis we may well be on the road to better appreciating our own unique place within the continuum of what I call our 'Little Blinks of Life' in the Universe.

Thomas Edison or Einstein were not evil any more than was bacteriologist Jonas Salk, or Norman Borlaug, the food geneticist. They cared, they changed the world, and their legacy continues in ways not immediately forseen. May I submit that diminishing their contributions diminishes ourselves. Peace and Good Vibrations. Locomotiveman

Comment by: Sam Steve (Dec-27-2010)   Web site

Samsung Air Conditioner are the marketing Leader in its segment.
Comment by:  chefurka (Bodhisantra (Paul) Chefurka) (Dec-11-2010)   Web site

Boreal born, I understand your fears. I shared them for over 40 years. If I did not feel that the threat of CO2 was so much greater and more immediate than any threat posed by nuclear power, I would still share them.

Over the last few years, however, I've become convinced that the threat to life on this plant posed by atmospheric CO2 completely trumps any other danger we face. I wish it wasn't like this, but my read of the planetary situation is that it is so dire that we simply cannot afford to discard any avenue that holds out the possibility of lower CO2 production. Ultimately I have some hope that LFTR technology could address most of the rational fears surrounding nuclear energy.

I will continue to support any and all technologies that reduce our production of CO2. It is the real threat to planetary life as we know it.
Comment by: boreal born (Dec-9-2010)   

Although you have changed your mind regarding nuclear power, chefurka, I do hope that you will be open to re-changing it once you discover how truly dangerous the nuclear industry is, from the mining phase through the generation and waste stages. You seem an intelligent and thougtful person.
While many are of the opinion that nuclear "waste" - which includes a great many substances - poses only a temporary and controllable threat to the environment that might last as long as 2000 years, this is nowhere near the actual facts. It seems you are, like myself, a Canadian. You might examine the AECL list of some of the components of "spent" nuclear fuel. This list contains, along with certain other pertinent information, the half-lives of some of the isotopes produced in the reactors. While some last only seconds, there are many for which half-lives are measured in millions and billions of years, such as Potassium-40 with a half-life of One billion years, beryllium-10 - half-life 1 billion 600 thousand years, rubidium-87, half-life 47 Billion years, thorium-232 half-life 14 billion years. These are but a few examples. The list, which is not a complete compilation of all the poisons in "spent" nuclear fuel contains only 79 nuclear isotopes, but there are in fact considerably more.
There is also a document estimating the toxicity of nuclear wastes, inlcuding mine tailings, for a period of 10 million years published by the Ontario Royal Commission on Electric Power Planning in 1978. The TRUE risks of this industry have been known and studiously ignored for decades.
I have pondered, who will maintain the watch on all of these dangerous substances for thousands, let alone millions or billions of years. Can we in conscience pass such a costly and threatening burden to our descendents? What human institutions or buildings can last so long, particularly when we ourselves measure antiquity in only a few thousand years? Make no mistake, these substances, of which we have now accumulated millions of tons, will not lose their potency to destroy life during those long long periods. Discussions concerning gases warming the atmosphere or recycling of materials, etc fade to much lesser importance when considering the consequences of nuclear usage. I am not one to promote fears, but this is one issue that I believe is of such monumental importance that I urge all people, everywhere, to educate themselves on the TRUTH about this industry.
We seldom hear of it in our media,but already hundreds of innocent people are suffering and dying as the result of nuclear mining, processing and waste. Please, do not simply read this and shrug it away. Educate yourselves and arm yourself with REAL facts and not simply opinions. I really don't want people to simply take my words without seeing for themselves.
Much of it is not easy to comprehend and will take some thought. I'm a former journalist and editor (seems you are in Ottawa - I was in the press gallery there for a time) and have been looking into this subject for almost 20 years and the more I learn, the more concerned I become for the futures of my grandchildren and their children and grandchildren. If we do not somehow force an end to this, it will result in a catastrophe from which there is no recovery. As the saying goes, "if you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging."
Please assist in halting this nightmare-in-the-making. I'd love to be able to share some of the documentation I've accumulated, but have no means of doing so at present.
Comment by:  Wavehunter (William Coffin) (Oct-17-2010)   Web site

If only you could go back and change history as easily, David!

To test whether nuclear is necessary in achieving GHG reduction targets, try the UK government's environmental-economic model. Will bringing in nuclear help to reduce emissions? If we don't bring it in, will we have to build an impossible number of windmills or turn our heating down to insufferable levels? Find out here:

The calculator is provided by the Department of Energy and Climate Change to aid the public and policy-makers as the UK strives to reduce carbon emissions to 20% of 1990 levels over the next four decades.
Comment by:  PT (David Alexander) (Oct-16-2010)   Web site

Thank you for the thoughtful comment, William. And yes, it was propeller airplanes, not jets. I will correct what I wrote now.
Comment by:  Wavehunter (William Coffin) (Oct-16-2010)   Web site

Lots of wise words and truths written here, by all who have contributed. And all with the Earth's best interests at heart.

With regards to nuclear power, well I am on the fence and remain there. I believe global warming is a far more pressing concern than the dangers of nuclear power. However, nuclear power stations do take a long time to build. And over the full lifecycle of a station, the power they produce may prove costly in both economic and environmental terms. If nuclear waste must be guarded for 1,000 years, for example, that's an enormous cost. Uranium extraction may also peak, perhaps in as little as 25 years.

On balance, I probably favour building no new nuclear power plants but keeping existing ones running for as long as they seem safe.

As for tackling global warming, our political and economic system is the greatest hurdle. Politicians and corporations urge us to consume more, we do so, and they respond to the increased demand. We should work to change it now, for at this moment we may be able to put in place something better.

When oil truly peaks capitalism will collapse, for its only response to declining inputs will be endless recession and mass unemployment. Democracy will likely collapse with it and we will be left with civil war between the poor masses and a small elite with military and industrial muscle behind it.

Without capitalism the state could set an amount of energy to produce each year. This could be set by scientists calculating how much greenhouse gas the ecosystem can take. We would then have to live within our means, finding energy savings - with help from government, wherever possible. Science would dictate supply, supply would dictate demand.

Until then, yes, we should all do what we can to live our lives in harmony.

PS: A couple of factual points. First, it is not only CO2 but methane that is changing the climate. Methane may be released from permafrost as a feedback to global warming, but is also released by cattle - cattle kept for our enormous appetite for beef. Methane emissions are thus caused by human activities, to a great extent.

Second, and less relevant, I think it was propeller-driven aircraft and not jets that the US mass produced from 1942 onwards (the middle of World War II, from a British or Canadian perspective). The continued US war footing, the military industrial complex, the constant search for a threat, the diversion of scientists from civilian to military research - these are all part of the reason we are now in this mess. However, the response to Pearl Harbour shows what is possible when we all pull together.
Comment by:  chefurka (Bodhisantra (Paul) Chefurka) (Oct-14-2010)   Web site

I don't really believe that any amount of tinkering with our energy supply is going to address the fundamental problems of CO2 buildup and the overall ecological devastation we're causing.

My position is that given the scale of the global problems we face, the relative risk of nuclear power is insignificant. Now, its contribution to any solution may be similarly insignificant, but at this point if there is any tool at our disposal that might help, I'm disinclined to take it off the table for ideological reasons.
Comment by: City Worker (Oct-14-2010)   

Hmm. The problems relating to the spread of the use of nuclear power don’t seem worth the risk. There are accidents all the time, and the more opportunities there are for accidents, the more accidents there are. Take that recent big mess/tragedy starting in Hungary due to the spill of sludge from aluminum mining. And aluminum mining is pretty much a barely-noticed accepted practice now. If we can generate nuclear energy, why not Hungary and…… also?? Also, the idea of using nuclear energy reminds me of the panic reaction of some in the United States after 9/11. There were some who felt a major curtailment of freedom for all and militaristic-type control over people’s lives should prevail to prevent further terrorist attacks. But once one does that, when does one stop doing it and return to the way things were?
Comment by:  chefurka (Bodhisantra (Paul) Chefurka) (Oct-8-2010)   Web site

David, I completely understand your position. I shared it until very recently.

However, I've come to the reluctant conclusion that the more benign alternatives will not be built out in time, with the possible exception of wind power.

I don't think there will be a WWII style initiative around renewables, mostly because there is no corporate support for anything except maybe wind. And there is no corporate support because there is no public awareness of the gravity of the situation (those two shortcomings are obviously locked together in a profit-driven feedback loop).

There is no question that there are technical improvements being made in renewable energy, and pilot projects are being deployed. Unfortunately, I've come to believe that the problems are accelerating much faster than the solutions. If that's true, then trying to take a potential solution off the table at this point seems suicidal.
Comment by:  PT (David Alexander) (Oct-8-2010)   Web site

Well, I admire your bravery writing as you do here; also agree that conservation is the quickest and least expensive GHG-reduction method available. Other than that, I can not agree with your approach!

It takes many years to build nuclear plants, costs are extremely high, and nuclear fuel is not a renewable resource. Wind, ocean current and wave, and photovoltaic and solar heating technology, if rolled out quickly, could provide all the power we need, and rapidly. If the approach was a war-time mentality approaching a peaceful purpose, the growth could be dramatic, just as the USA produced hundreds of thousands of airplanes during World War II, due to a tremendous increase in production capacity during those five years.

This does not include mention of vulnerability to terrorism, or pollution via leaks such as the major leak into the aquifer in a reactor run by a highly skilled facility at Shoreham, Long Island. Add the heating of bodies of water next to plants (to cool their cores) which kills many kinds of fish, and the long-term disposal problem.

In terms of distribution of renewable energy from varied sources, to ensure availability, a large project going on now to help power Europe has photovoltaics being placed in the African northern desert, with high-voltage DC cables under the Mediterannean Sea, and only 10% - 15% loss after thousands of miles of high-voltage line. Storage methods are also improving quickly, including melted salts, water pumping, and others.

Surely we can act quickly with ramping up of incrementally free, non-polluting sources of energy. The emergency argument for nuclear energy holds little weight for me, due to the time needed to build nuclear plants, as well as the mid-term and long-term problems with nuclear, which are severe.

Cost of nuclear
Wikipedia overview on all energy sources
Works of Harvey Wasserman here at

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About author/contributor Member: chefurka (Bodhisantra (Paul) Chefurka) chefurka (Bodhisantra (Paul) Chefurka)
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Member: chefurka (Bodhisantra (Paul) Chefurka) I am a Canadian ecologist with a passionate interest in outside the box responses to the converging crisis of industrial civilization.

The crisis of civilization is not simply a convergence of technical, environmental and organizational problems.  These are symptoms that are themselves being driven by a philosophical and perceptual disconnection so deep that it is best understood as a spiritual breakdown.  The disconnection goes by the name of Separation.

Our sense of separation is what allows us to see ourselves as different from and superior to the rest of the apparently non-rational universe we live in.  In this worldview the complex mutual interdependence of all the elements of the universe is replaced by a simple dualistic categorization:  there are human beings, and everything else in the universe—without exception—is a resource for us to use.

The only way to keep this planet, our one and only home in the universe, from being ultimately ravaged and devastated is to change our worldview and heal our sense of separateness.  Unless we can manage that breathtaking feat all the careful application of technology, all the well-intentioned regulations, all the unbridled cleverness of which we are so proud will do little to delay the final outcome, and nothing whatever to prevent it.

My desire is to find ways to heal that sense of separation, with the goal of helping us prepare for ecological adulthood.

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