Our society is powered largely by burning fossil fuels. This is the equivalent to living on our savings. Fossil fuels — oil, coal and gas — were laid down over a period of a hundred or so million years and we are using about a million years’ worth every year. Even if there were not the risk of climate change, we should be looking for alternatives.
Ultimately, we need to be aiming for complete renewability, but this will require some massive changes in human societies, and some enormous leaps forward in technology. Humans have never used any resources renewably (apart from a few insignificant exceptions).
The immediate alternatives to fossil fuels include wave, tide, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, biomass, solar and nuclear power. All have their up and down sides but all can make some contribution, and it would be foolish to rule any out without strong reaons. That is just what many environmentalists do when they rule out nuclear power from the future energy mix. Can other sources suffice?
Recently, New Scientist looked at one scientist’s efforts to “do the math” (2 April). Axel Kleidon, a physicist from the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Germany, has calculated that building enough wind farms to replace fossil fuel-derived energy would actually remove a significant amount of energy from the atmosphere and alter rainfall, turbulence and the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth’s surface.
Humans at present use some 47 terawatts (TW or trillions of watts = joules per second) of energy of which 17 TW come from fossil fuels. The rest is made up of renewable sources, mainly harvesting farmed plants. This is only about one twenty-thousandth of the energy coming from the sun.
But the useful energy available to us is restricted by the laws of thermodynamics to what is termed the “free” energy, the rest being unusable heat. Kleidon calculates that we are using some 5-10% of the free energy, more than is used by all geological processes, such as earthquakes, volcanoes and tectonic plate movements! If we were to set up wind and wave farms with a theoretical output of 17 TW, we would find, first, that a lot of waste heat would be produced, contributing to global warming. We would also deplete the available energy in the atmosphere: Kleidon calculates that this could reduce the energy to be harnessed from the wind by a factor of 100.
There are other sources of energy but these have their drawbacks. Geothermal power stations rely on pumping water into hot rocks fractured by explosions, but experimental plants are losing unacceptable amounts of water underground so the outputs are lower than expected.
Solar electricity relies on rare elements such as indium and tellurium, which are projected to run out within decades. Cheaper versions of solar cells still require another rare element, selenium.
Solar heating, using large mirrors to focus the Sun’s rays to boil water and drive turbines, is a very promising technology but it is not clear that this could fill more than part of the gap. For one thing, the Sun does not shine so strongly (or at all) on many parts of the Earth or during many times in the year.
Is it wise to rule out nuclear power? Many eminent environmentalists are coming round to the view that it isn’t.
Mark Lynas, writing in the New Statesman shortly after the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan (21 March), warned that a panicky abandonment of nuclear power would lead to catastrophic global warming, a far greater problem. He argues that renewable sources are not going to be able to fill the gap in energy for countries like Japan, certainly in the short to medium term, and they will simply increase their use of fossil fuels.
And long-time environmentalist George Monbiot (Guardian, 22 March) called for a sense of perspective over Fukushima, with no deaths (apart from two killed by the tsunami, and over the enormous disruption of the landscape which would be necessary if renewables were to supply all of our energy needs. Not only would there be enormous areas devoted to onshore windfarms, but also increased networks of grid connections to get the electricity to where it was needed. Pumped storage facilities would be needed to store the energy for when it was needed.
Other options favoured by some involve reversing the pattern of industrialisation and moving people back into rural communities where power could be produced locally. Except, according to Monbiot, it couldn’t. In the UK, he says, generating solar power involves a “spectacular waste of scarce resources”, while wind power in populated areas is largely worthless, since we build in sheltered spots. And direct use of energy by damming rivers or harvesting wood would wreck the countryside.
One of the UK’s oldest environmentalist groups, Friends of the Earth (FoE) consistently opposes nuclear power. Its five year-old report, Nuclear power, climate change and the Energy Review, raises the following objections.
Nuclear power is error-prone and likely to fail in ways dangerous to lots of people; it assists in the proliferation of nuclear weapons; it is vulnerable to terrorist attack; and that it is anyway unnecessary to use nuclear power at all in the complete replacement of fossil fuels in power generation and transport which FoE also calls for.
The claim is repeated that, though nuclear power generates electricity without releasing CO2, the extraction of uranium and the building of plant result in carbon emissions — as though this was a significant objection. Every current and proposed energy technology will result in carbon emissions as the concrete, steel, etc, will have to be made using current fossil fuel resources. The point is that it will make far less overall than the fossil fuel burning it will replace.
The Green Party uses many of the same arguments.
Both the Greens and FoE both give expense as an argument against new nuclear power, and yet the report the Greens cite states that the increased nuclear option would be the cheapest, while the no nuclear/all renewable option would be the most expensive (necessitating energy imports as well!). FoE’s own figures show nuclear power’s costs sitting right in the middle of all other energy sources.
Another problem identified is that of disposal of waste, including dangerous high-level waste. This has a solution — burial in geologically stable strata deep underground. The waste has to be inaccessible for about 100,000 years, but there are plenty of rock layers where movements of chemicals is measured in a few metres per million years (for example, the Oklo “natural” reactor).
The problem of nuclear accidents was perhaps the most prominent criticism raised by FoE five years ago, and the accident at Fukushima would not diminish the shrillness of their alarms. Nowhere do FoE or the Greens even mention the possibility of improved safety features in current reactor designs, for instance, ones that rely on gravity to flood overheating reactor cores with water, rather than as at Fukushima using pumps whose electricity could be cut off by an earthquake.
Nowhere do they raise the need for new designs using thorium which are “fail safe” and could be adapted to burn up the high level waste which is such a problem and has to be dealt with whether we have nuclear power or not. And nuclear reactors even now are burning up “surplus” nuclear weapons.
The Labour Party’s “green wing”, the Socialist Environmental and Resources Association (SERA), does not differ from FoE and the Greens in opposing nuclear power, though they concentrate on problems of time and money.
They ignore the fact that the delays are due to the political cowardice of Labour governments and refusals to support research into new reactor designs.
It is notable that the environmentalists seem to have stopped blaming nuclear power stations for clusters of childhood leukaemias (no link with any other form of illness has been found). Such clusters are in fact found in many places where workers and their families have moved from elsewhere and may be due to lack of resistance to locally occurring viruses.
If one hoped for an independent voice from the SWP, one would be disappointed. In a slightly revised update of a 2006 pamphlet, Martin Empson refers blithely to the cancers and other illnesses coming to the Fukushima clean-up workers “as with the Chernobyl disaster”. He is clearly unaware of the massive differences in the two cases and the absence of evidence of long-term harm in the unfortunate but brave Chernobyl workers who survived initial exposure to radiation.
He sets up the straw person who argues that nuclear power is “the only way that we can produce low carbon electricity” and repeats the irrelevant fact that some CO2 will be released in setting up reactors. He insists that “Fukushima shows that nuclear power is extremely dangerous”. He doesn’t recognise that the reactors survived one of the most powerful earthquakes and tsunamis recorded with minimal damage and would have been virtually problem-free had a fail-safe cooling system been installed — as should and could have happened.
He repeats the discredited allegations of clusters of leukaemias around nuclear plants. He rubbishes suggestions of as few as 4,000 excess deaths due to Chernobyl which came from a United Nations report in 2005, preferring another “independent” report which suggested some half a million deaths already(!). He seems unaware of the latest UN report which drastically reduces estimates of illness and death from Chernobyl. It states that 28 of 134 “liquidators” died of acute radiation sickness at the time and a further 19 have died but not of radiation-linked diseases. Fifteen of some 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer have died (this problem arose only because of the criminal negligence of USSR authorities). No other deaths have definitely been attributed to radiation from Chernobyl. Professor Wade Allison, a radiation expert from Oxford University, argues that people’s natural defence mechanisms against radiation damage have been greatly under-estimated.
The environmentalists and the SWP appear to be unaware of the fact that fossil fuel extraction and use is thousands of times more dangerous than nuclear power.
Nuclear power, climate change and the Energy Review, Friends of the Earth 2005
Meeting the UK’s 2020 energy challenge: Do we need new nuclear?, Alan Whitehead MP, SERA January 2008
Climate Change: Why Nuclear Power is Not the Answer, Martin Empson, SWP 2006 (“updated” 2011)
Health effects due to radiation from the Chernobyl accident, UNSCEAR 2011
Radiation and Reason: The Impact of Science on a Culture of Fear, Wade Allison (ISBN 0-9562756-1-3, pub. 2009), http://www.radiationandreason.com