Nuclear power – still not a good bet

Prof David Elliott, Open University, points out some of the flaws in a recent pro-nuclear letter by conservation biologists.

ResponsibleSci blog, 9 January 2015

An Open Letter to Environmentalists has beenpublished by two Australian academics and backed by over 70 conservation biologists calling for support for nuclear power as a way of tackling climate change. Whereas nuclear faces strong opposition in many parts of the world, and its global contribution has fallen to 11% of global electricity (half of what renewables are now supplying globally), the Open Letter calls for a rethink. It claims that nuclear power can have less social and environmental impacts than renewable sources and so should not be opposed by environmentalists. The Open Letter points to a paper backing its claims, ‘Key role for nuclear energy in global biodiversity conservation’ in the journal Conservation Biology.

Put very simply, it argues that nuclear has lower land-use per unit of energy produced than renewables and so will leave more space for biodiversity. This assessment, like some of the other analysis in the paper, is debatable. It is true that some renewables are land-hungry, biomass especially, but that is not the case for offshore wind, wave and tidal stream or roof-top solar. And although onshore wind farm sites may be relatively large, the land around the wind turbines can be farmed or left wild. It has also been claimed that solar farm arrays on land can actually increase local biodiversity – protecting the area from other uses. By contrast with nuclear, it is not just the area of the plants and their security zones that has to be considered, but also the impact of uranium mining and fuel production and waste disposal activities. These activities and the operation of nuclear plants also have impacts beyond just land-use. The release of radioactive materials has a significant potential for long term damage to cellular and possibly genetic material and to the health of ecosystems. That is not the case with renewables. Although, as with any technology, there are occupational risks: around 150 people have died worldwide since the 1970s in accidents associated with wind turbine installation or maintenance. The Conservation Biology paper however argues that nuclear is safer than wind or solar, based on analysis that, like its land-use estimates, can be challenged: estimates for early deaths globally from nuclear accidents range up to many tens of thousands.  

The Open Letter aims to stimulate a debate on energy technology choices, and that is no bad thing. But its originators have a clear agenda: although they accept that renewables may play a role, they see nuclear as offering “prospects for being a principal cure for our fossil-fuel addiction ”and want a policy shift away from the 100% renewables targets adopted by many green NGOs, with nuclear making “a major, and perhaps leading, contribution”. Whether their analysis is robust enough to support that position will no doubt now be debated. Equally one might debate whether it would be possible to expand nuclear on a significant scale. As the Open Letter’s originators make clear, nuclear is not cheap – they accept, for example, that onshore wind power is cheaper. But they put their faith in new concepts like Integral Fast Breeders which allegedly can avoid some of the problems with conventional nuclear plants. That seems very speculative and uncertain. By contrast, China already generates ten times more electricity from renewables than from nuclear, with the output from its 90GW of wind turbine capacity overtaking that from its nuclear plants last year. Around 50 countries already get more than 60% of their electricity from renewables, mostly hydro, and the contribution from ‘new’ renewables (like wind, solar and marine) can grow markedly, if resources are not diverted into nuclear projects. Energy conservation programmes are also suffering from underfunding despite the huge potential for energy saving.

In 2006, SGR published an open letter, backed by 45 energy and climate experts, opposing a new generation of nuclear power stations in the UK. It said: “Nuclear power utilising fission is a limited, inflexible, expensive and potentially dangerous energy source which creates unique problems.” Has anything changed since then? Well yes. Although the UK is still attempting to expand nuclear, we have had the Fukushima disaster in 2011 and renewables have expanded rapidly across the globe, while their costs have fallen significantly. Many industrialised countries are now aiming for high renewables contributions – led by Germany, which aims to get at least 80% of its electricity from renewables by 2050, and Denmark, aiming for 100% by then. And there are numerous scenarios showing that, with proper attention to energy saving, many more countries could follow suit. Why change track?

David Elliott is Emeritus Professor of Technology Policy at the Open University, UK. He is Editor of Renew, the newsletter of the Network for Alternative Technology and Technology Assessment.

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