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Nuclear power: no solution to global warming

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  • sacw
    The Friday Times, July 1-7, 2005, Vol. XVII, No. 19 www.thefridaytimes.com NUCLEAR POWER: NO SOLUTION TO GLOBAL WARMING M V Ramana There is simply no way
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 2, 2005
      The Friday Times,
      July 1-7, 2005, Vol. XVII, No. 19


      M V Ramana

      There is simply no way global warming can be stopped
      without significant reductions in the current energy
      consumption levels of developed countries


      Whatever else one could say about nuclear power in the
      old days, it was certainly not considered
      environment-friendly. Over the past few years,
      however, a number of so-called environmentalists,
      generally Western, have come out in support of nuclear
      power as an essential component of any practical
      solution to global warming.

      Predictably, flailing nuclear establishments
      everywhere have grabbed this second opportunity to
      make a claim for massive state investments and
      resurrect an industry that has collapsed in country
      after country due to its inability to provide clean,
      safe, or cheap electricity. But just as the old mantra
      "too cheap to meter" proved ridiculously wrong, the
      claims that nuclear energy can contribute
      significantly to mitigating climate change do not bear

      Most prominent of these so-called environmentalists
      turned pro-nuclear advocates is James Lovelock, who
      propounded the Gaia hypothesis of the Earth as a
      self-regulating organism. Last year he entreated his
      "friends in the [Green] movement to drop their
      wrongheaded objection to nuclear energy." Lovelock's
      article had several factual errors. For example,
      "nuclear energy from its start in 1952 has proved to
      be the safest of all energy sources" One wonders which
      of the many renewable energy sources promoted by the
      Green movement - photovoltaics, wind energy, and so on
      - has had an accident that even remotely compares with

      Even more inexplicable is the assertion: "We must stop
      fretting over the minute statistical risks of cancer
      from chemicals or radiation. Nearly one third of us
      will die of cancer anyway, mainly because we breathe
      air laden with that all pervasive carcinogen, oxygen."
      Despite such nonsense, Lovelock's article was
      circulated widely, both by the nuclear lobby and by
      other environmentalists who were either confused or
      felt that this sort of argument had to be refuted

      Lovelock's bloomers aside, the fact that some
      environmentalists have endorsed nuclear power as a
      solution to global warming deserves serious
      consideration and response. The enormity of the
      potential impact of climate change adds to this

      Two implicit but flawed assumptions underlie most
      claims about the significance of nuclear energy for
      the climate-change issue. The first is that climate
      change can be tackled without confronting and changing
      Western, especially American, patterns of energy
      consumption - the primary causes and continuing
      drivers for unsustainable increases in carbon
      emissions and global warming. This is plain
      impossible; there is simply no way global warming can
      be stopped without significant reductions in the
      current energy consumption levels of Western/developed
      countries. Efforts by various developing countries to
      match these consumption levels only intensify the

      The second flawed assumption is that the adoption of
      nuclear power will lower aggregate carbon emissions.
      In a strictly technical sense, each unit of
      electricity produced by a nuclear plant would cause
      the emission of fewer grams of carbon than a unit of
      electricity generated by thermal plants. (A false myth
      often propagated by the nuclear lobby is that nuclear
      energy is carbon free. In reality, several steps in
      the nuclear fuel cycle, from uranium mining to
      enrichment to reprocessing, emit copious amounts of
      greenhouse gases.) And so, the assumption goes,
      installing a large number of nuclear power stations
      will lower carbon emission rates.

      The problem is that the assumption holds true only if
      all else remains constant, in particular consumption
      levels. But that is never the case. In fact, there is
      no empirical evidence that increased use of nuclear
      power has contributed to actually reducing a country's
      carbon dioxide emissions. The best case study is
      Japan, a strongly pro-nuclear energy country. As
      Japanese nuclear chemist and winner of the 1997 Right
      Livelihood Award, Jinzaburo Takagi pointed out, from
      1965 to 1995 Japan's nuclear plant capacity went from
      zero to over 40,000 MW. During the same period, carbon
      dioxide emissions went up from about 400 million
      tonnes to about 1200 million tonnes.

      There are two reasons why increased use of nuclear
      power does not necessarily lower carbon emissions.
      First, nuclear energy is best suited only to produce
      baseload electricity. That only constitutes a fraction
      of all sources of carbon emissions. Other sectors of
      the economy where carbon dioxide and other greenhouse
      gases are emitted, such as transportation, cannot be
      operated using electricity from nuclear reactors. This
      situation is unlikely to change anytime in the near

      A second and more fundamental reason is provided by
      John Byrnes of the University of Delaware's Centre for
      Energy and Environmental Policy, who observed that
      nuclear technology is an expensive source of energy
      service and can only be economically viable in a
      society that relies on increasing levels of energy
      use. Nuclear power tends to require and promote a
      supply-oriented energy policy and an energy-intensive
      pattern of development.

      The high cost of nuclear power also means that any
      potential decreases in carbon emissions due to its
      adoption are expensive, certainly higher than energy
      efficiency improvements as well as other means to
      lower emissions from thermal power plants.

      One other argument advanced by some of these so-called
      environmentalists is that nuclear power is just an
      interim solution while better solutions are worked
      out. The idea is wholly at odds with the history of
      nuclear establishments around the world and completely
      underestimates the remarkable capabilities of powerful
      institutions to find resources for continuing
      existence and growth. Once such institutions are
      established, they will find ways to ensure that they
      are not disempowered.

      For nuclear power to make a significant dent in global
      warming, nuclear capacity must grow manifold
      (ten-plus). The notion that nuclear power can increase
      manifold from current levels and then be phased out is
      wishful thinking, to say the least. Such a projection
      also completely ignores existing realities -
      uncompetitive costs, safety concerns, the unresolved
      problem of radioactive waste, and the link to the bomb
      - that come in the way of any significant expansion of
      nuclear power.

      Global warming is a serious issue. Providing
      ill-thought out answers is no way to address such a
      grave problem.


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