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To Nuke or Not To Nuke (no, I’m not talking about bombs!)

2012/08/11

I believe that there are many reasons to get off of fossil fuels.

  • Reducing the number of offshore oil spills.
  • Reducing the number of leaking pipelines.
  • Eliminating the need for dangerous practices such as hydraulic fracturing and the extraction of bitumen from Alberta’s Tar Sands.
  • Improving air quality and people’s health.
  • Getting rid of the concentration of influence in the hands of the wealthy fossil fuel industry.

And, of course, there is the teeny-tiny problem of global warming and avoiding catastrophic climate change.

So that’s the “why”.  But what about the “how”?  How do we go about powering the world without the use of fossil fuels?

When I read (or watch videos) about a fossil fuel-free energy mix, the argument always seems to be that nuclear is a necessary evil.  Despite its inherent dangers, nuclear power’s ability to provide steady, “baseload” power (which is on all the time) makes it the mandatory, carbon-free(-ish) partner of intermittent renewables such as wind, concentrated solar and photovoltaics.

But is that argument still true?  Is nuclear still worth the risk?  And considering how little time we have to get our carbon emissions under control, do the rather long delays in putting a nuclear power plant into operation still make it a “necessary evil”?

To nuke or not to nuke?

To answer that question, or at least to inform the discussion, I invite you to watch the TED debate (a TED Talk in debate format) I’ve embedded below.  Arguing for nuclear energy is environmentalist Stewart Brand.  Arguing against is Stanford professor Mark Z. Jacobson.  Each of them get a fixed amount of time to make their respective arguments.  Then, there is a short back-and-forth followed by four people from the audience (two from each side of the debate) each getting 30 seconds to make a “pungent, powerful point”.

Add your opinions below!

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. Martin Lack permalink
    2012/08/11 11:35 am

    Thanks for posting this JP. It is excellent. I am familiar with Stewart Brandt but not Mark Jacobson.

    Taking the arguments presented by each, I think that the worst argument for nuclear (not made by Brandt but alluded to by others) is that it is high-tech and technologically elitist (i.e. control remains in the hands of the few).
    The best argument for nuclear is that Fourth Generation technology will use nuclear weapons; waste from Thermal plants; and the 99% of uranium that Thermal plants can’t use … This will result in a long-term global reduction in the amount of nuclear waste – with lower activity-levels and shorter half-life than all that has been generated to-date by weapons and power programmes to-date.

    The worst argument presented against nuclear was footprint; and indeed Jacobson appeared to know it was disingenuous and misleading. It is utterly futile to argue that any form or energy production could possibly be more energy-efficient than E=mc2.
    The best argument against nuclear energy is the time it will take to build a large number of power plants but Brandt demonstrated that small-scale technology exists.

    Therefore, although I am not ideologically opposed to nuclear energy, I remain unclear as to whether we do genuinely need it because (leaving aside Jacobson’s highly questionable presentation) there are forms of renewable energy that are capable of providing baseload power (e.g. tidal, geothermal and energy from waste). However, even with these, the need for larger power distribution networks remain. Therefore, I think the best solution is reducing the demand for centrally-generated power of all kinds (which nuclear cannot do).

    • 2012/08/11 5:19 pm

      Thank you for sharing your detailed opinion. The more I read about fourth generation nuclear plants, the more encouraged I am – not only does it take care of the nuclear waste issue, but also (I would imagine) the need for mining and refining more uranium (which are both rather nasty on the environment). But, I always come back to an argument made by Jacobson that we may have waited too long to build more nuclear plants in order to fight climate change. You and I both know how short of a time span we have before our “carbon budget” is blown.

      I guess we (as human society) could put together sort of a plan where in the short term renewables are developed as aggressively as possible, keeping natural gas and nuclear as a baseload where it is need (Mr. Jacobson seems very confident that renewables could work without a baseload, hence the “where it is needed”). In the medium term (considering the time it takes to develop and build new nuclear plants), we could plan to replace any baseload gas with only nuclear. And, in the long term, as renewable (and nuclear) tech improves, we can make a decision as to whether we can/should replace nuclear.

      All of which should be done within strict environmental, safety and anti-proliferation regulations.

      What do you think? Doable?

      • Martin Lack permalink
        2012/08/11 7:29 pm

        Thanks JP. Yes, I agree, governments have wasted too much time running scared of anti-nuclear protestors (and should not have abandoned Fast Breeder Reactor technology 20-25 years ago). Over and beyond that, as I implied in my earlier comments, the situation is complicated; and will have to be carefully regulated.

        However, unless energy self-sufficiency suddenly becomes popular, what depresses me the most is the idea that, irrespective of the energy source, more public or commercial power generation will require more distribution networks (which I consider to be much more of a blight on the countryside than wind turbines).

      • 2012/08/11 9:21 pm

        It is such a complicated situation, and yet, from where I sit, it seems like “the powers that be” aren’t even talking about how to solve it. There are so many smart people out there with great ideas on how to run our energy system. But were aren’t listening to them!
        I agree with you about the distribution networks. Actually, my wife says that all the time when people complain about how wind turbines look 🙂

      • Martin Lack permalink
        2012/08/12 5:59 am

        Agree there too. In Storm of my Grandchildren James Hansen makes it clear that he believes governments are lying to themselves and their peoples and, having tried and failed to get straight answers to straight questions from the Dept. for Energy and Climate Change, I am inclined to agree with him. IMHO, they completely failed to defend:
        — cancellation of subsidies for domestic solar PV; and
        — reliance upon carbon capture and storage as an excuse for not phasing-out fossil fuels.

        On a more positive note, the EU is putting a lot of money into the R&D of a range of tidal power generation techniques off the northern coast of Scotland. As an island nation the UK would be insane not to pursue this.

      • 2012/08/12 9:21 am

        Ah yes. Carbon capture. That’s Canada’s big “effort” to combat climate change and control emissions from the Tar Sands. Billions of our tax dollars spent, but it wouldn’t even help with the biggest problem in the Tar Sands: The carbon emitted from burning all the oil that is excavated!

        As for your tidal project: best of luck. I wish PEI (or Canada) would invest in tidal. Lots of coasts around to take advantage of.

      • Martin Lack permalink
        2012/08/12 10:17 am

        Check out the websites of the European Marine Energy Centre and Orkney Marine Renewables from which I am sure the PEI government could derive some inspiration…

      • 2012/08/12 10:35 am

        Thanks Martin. I’ve sent the links to an “energy wonk” I know here on PEI.

      • Martin Lack permalink
        2012/08/12 10:53 am

        Glad to be of some service… 🙂

  2. 2012/08/11 11:49 am

    The point made by Marc about nuclear holocast becomes irrelevant here as the world’s countries are already having that kind of weaponry..regardless.
    I had heard Stewart talk about a couple of years ago and had completely changed my mind for pro-nuclear. The challenge with nuclear is pure technological and that too is being solved by 4th gen reactors. The real problem is social than technological.

    • 2012/08/11 5:25 pm

      Thanks for sharing Pankaj. I agree that the social and technological hurdles are challenging. But I wonder if the financial hurdles might not be even greater? And that is what frustrates me the most about the entire energy/climate change debate: the fact that we are stuck on the dollar issue. I may be naive, but I know that what ever financial hit we might need to absorb in order to transition to renewables is nothing compared to the cost of doing nothing and letting our emissions grow out of control.

      OK. I had to get that off my chest. I feel better now : )

      Stewart does seem to be good at “selling” nuclear. And, coming from an environmentalist, that means a lot (so long as we don’t find out that he’s been receiving big $ from the nuclear industry!).

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