8 May 2006
Why Nuclear Power in not a Solution to Peak Oil – The Final Installment. Because there are Just Too Many Other Reasons…
I’m going to move on from this nuclear thing now as I have some other great things to bring you (just wait for tomorrow’s great **Transition Culture** exclusive!) and because once I’ve started I could go on for weeks. My final reason why nuclear power is not a response to peak oil is simply that there are so many other reasons. The list of reasons why this monstrous form of energy generation will do absolutely nothing to get us out of the yawning energy chasm is so lengthy that I can really do it no justice beyond scratching the surface as I have done over the last few days.
Many other people have argued against nuclear power far more effectively than I am able to. These include a good piece called Four Reasons Why Nuclear Power is a Terrible Way to Generate Energy,
one called Nuclear Power – too expensive to solve global warming, which sets out the whole case that actually just the cost implications alone should be enough to send any rational person back to the drawing board, and one of the best and most concise, recently produced by the Irish Green Party, Ten Reasons Why Nuclear Power Makes No Sense for Ireland, which sums up what I have been trying to say in this series, just far more concisely and with less ranty rambling.
More worrying is an excellent piece by Andy Rowell in last week’s Guardian called Plugging the Gap which looks at what is actually going on behind the scenes of the supposedly open-minded Energy Review currently underway within Tony Blair’s administration. Not exactly surprising, but rather scary nonetheless. We are being bounced towards a new nuclear programme whether we like it or not.
Perhaps the single most compelling reason is summed up in this piece from The Sunday Herald. In a piece called Global warming scuppers Blair’s nuclear power plans, Rob Edwards discusses a report by Nirex which states that “at least 11 of Britain’s preferred nuclear sites are so low-lying that they could be drowned or damaged by rising seas, causing radio active waste to leak”. So the logical conclusion of the study is that we cannot site new reactors at any of those sites, (and presumably by extension need to pull our fingers out with dismantling the existing ones), and so need to look for new sites. Many commentators expect that any new reactors will be built at existing sites to reduce planning complications and public opposition, but if that is not viable because they will soon all be underwater they will have to look for fresh sites inland. In that eventuality they can expect massive opposition.
So, I draw my very personal contribution to the nuclear debate to a close. For me, nuclear power is the worst route we could go down, as it would mean that we can kiss a planned and co-ordinated Powerdown goodbye. Never mind the problems of cost, safety, waste disposal, climate change sinking the sites, the CO2 implications (far higher than officially acknowledged), the risks of proliferation and terrorism, the fact that it commits us to a centralised energy system, the fact that it creates only a handful of jobs compared to those that renewables can create, the fact that uranium is a depleting resource just like oil and so on and so on and so on, for me that is the key argument. Once we commit to that path, we are diverted from what we really need to do. I am also aware that it is almost certain that Blair will opt for a nuclear option (from his perspective he really has little choice….).
In that case we have no choice but to dust down our ‘Nuclear Power No Thanks’ badges and vow to fight a new generation of nuclear power with all our might and resources. Joanna Macy, in ‘Coming Back to Life’, argues that the Great Turning, as she calls it, will have three aspects. The first she calls *’holding actions in defence of life on Earth’*. The second is *’Analysis of structural causes and creation of alternative institutions’*, which is the critical analysis of what are the causes behind the mess we have got into, as well as the exploration of creating practical structural alternatives such as Energy Descent Plans. The last is *’Shift in perceptions of reality, both cognitively and spiritually’*, which means that the Great Turning cannot come about based on current values, but that they need a new set of values, a rediscovery of the Earth as sacred.
The vampiric resurrection of nuclear power from its copper and lead-lined coffin is a reminder that creating Powerdown does not mean that all of us will be able to focus on the positive stuff, decentralised energy and local food, but we will still need to maintain the ‘holding actions’, and I have a deep feeling that the most pressing ‘holding actions’ over the next few years will be preventing a new generation of nuclear power and of militarism. I’d like to leave the last word to David Fleming, whose excellent new paper triggered this whole series in the first place. He sums up what I’ve been trying to say thus, “The defining reality of the energy future … has to be an acknowledgement that no large-scale technical fix is available. Energy cannot any longer be delegated to experts. The future will have to be a collective, society-transforming effort”. Amen to that.
Do let us hear the reasons you feel are the most compelling ones against nuclear power. What are the main points that I have failed to mention? Or do you think that actually we have no choice, and that we might as well just learn to live with it? Share your thoughts here, this is an important issue to debate.
8 May 3:35pm
I’ve read David Fleming’s work from FEASTA and while I haven’t personally checked his numbers, his approach appears sound and well thought out. I am a Nuclear Engineer (BS/MS) and a proponent of nuclear power (donning asbestos underwear now). My basic stance is that all energy production methods produce waste (even solar – the chemicals that make those cells are nasty) so the choice is simply whether you want to breath it or bury it.
That being said though, the key reason why nuclear fission won’t get us out of the Peak Oil problem is twofold:
1. Peak Oil is a liquid fuels problem, and last time I check Ford wasn’t making a nuclear-powered SUV.
2. If nuclear power was scaled up for electricity generation or hydrogen production, we would encounter “Peak Uranium” rather quickly, as David Flemming pointed out in his FEASTA report.
As you’ve stated, the popular “solution” to Peak Oil is to downscale, localize, and head towards permaculture. I think these are worthwhile goals, and I’m designing my own EarthShip even now. However, I personally refuse to accept that our civilization will enter a permanent, unrecoverable state of energy decline and all that means for our society and the human-carrying capacity of our planet. A short-term (50 year) correction I can believe, longer-term not so much.
So the only way to win the long-run game is through nuclear FUSION. Yes, the technology is a huge challenge, and yes it’s been promised to be ready “within 20 years” many times now. But that’s where I would put a sizeable fraction of my nuclear resources (scientists, engineers, and financial capital).
8 May 8:43pm
Space. Earth could be a garden without a single production or extraction industry supporting 20 billion people with a fraction of a percent of the resources that are just floating around the sun. Even if we didn’t get fusion off the ground for 50 years we could import all the uranium we need from space. Build a space elevator (technology that is closer to reality than practical fusion) and you don’t even have to worry about rockets failing when you carry all the waste up to orbit so you can dump it in the sun. It never fails to amaze me how environmentalists fail to look beyond the planet. Earth is great but there is enough stuff out there for every person who has ever lived to lead a lifestyle better than anything currently enjoyed on this planet. We need nukes in space until we can get fusion or something better. This is not science fiction. Google asteroid mining. Check it out. The future does not have to power down, and it certainly doesn’t have to be limited to one planet. Unless that is all we have the vision for.
8 May 9:30pm
As Scott pointed out above, the issue of embodied energy in the fuel is the one that’s grossly overlooked.
When considering how much energy is required to “make” the fuel, it’s ridiculous to claim it to be a “zero carbon solution”.
Because it’s also made abroad, and that Uranium has already become a seller’s market (from a newspaper article from last year) it would seem foolish to depend on such a fuel. What happens if it skyrockets in price? What happens if the supplying country decides not to sell it?
If we pursue nuclear then it should only be done as far as we have the ability to stockpile the fuel.
9 May 2:06am
Good work over the last four posts Rob. I heard an interesting fact throwen out by Bill McKibben during the third Peak Oil event I have attended in a fortnight over here in the states. During a lecture last night titled ‘Thinking Small Scale’ he said that we could make better carbon savings by giving everyone low energy light bulbs than we could by going nuclear.
Really looking forward to tomorrow’s great Transition Culture exclusive.
13 Jul 2:54pm
Lovelock made a mess of his answer to the lady. Chernobyl was a jerry built soviet effort, lacking even a containment vessel. nobody is planning to build reactors without containment vessels the example is irrelevent.
Also greens have only themselves to blame. If they hadn’t started the hysteria over global warming nuclear power would be dead and buried.
25 Apr 1:49pm
ever heard of thorium generators?