Thursday, February 20, 2014

Is nuclear power an alternative to climate change?

Put on a happy face.
Recently a friend asked me about the role of nuclear power in addressing climate change, an issue that divides the environmental movement, and one worth examining. On one side is the traditional opposition of environmentalists to the staggering scale of harm that can occur from a nuclear accident. Plus, the civilian nuclear power industry is inextricably linked to the nuclear armament industry, which is why there is so much international opposition to Iran or other nations developing domestic nuclear power programs that could foster their creation of nuclear weapons.
On the other hand, the single greatest looming threat to human society’s ability to thrive on the planet is global climate change, driven primarily by our transfer of greenhouse gases from under the earth into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels. Since splitting atoms doesn’t release fossil carbon, nuclear is described by some as a “clean” or “green” energy source, even though there are some carbon emissions in the mining and processing of nuclear isotopes, and in the construction of nuclear plants, as well as other toxic or radiation issues.
Does that mean nuclear is the way to avoid climate change? For that to be so would require replacing all our fossil energy sources – coal, oil, and natural gas – with nuclear energy, in the process converting our transportation system from relying on gas to using electricity to drive cars, trucks, and trains. Certainly it’s technically possible. Instead of batteries to power electric cars, we could use electricity to make hydrogen fuel. And switching to a renewable future also requires changing how we power our vehicles and heat our homes.
The question then really comes down to cost and time. Climate change is a slow but inexorable process; we don’t have to change overnight (which is good, because we can’t) but we must start moving in the right direction now and build momentum. We can’t afford to wait to start later, and we have only so much money to accomplish what needs be done.
That’s where the red flags go up. A nuclear renaissance is slow; if we dive in today, it will be a decade before the new plants come on line. In contrast, new renewable energy can be installed steadily in the meantime, and be producing more energy each year, starting from year one. So a switch to renewables is a better fit for the time pressure we face.
Then there is the money issue: the costs of existing nuclear technology are huge, many hidden behind government subsidies or relaxed insurance rules. By putting all our eggs into a nuclear basket, we would run short of funds to implement existing and new technologies of efficiency and conservation to reduce energy demand, or improve and expand renewable generation. Quite simply, we can’t afford to do both.
These time and cost issues remain a problem whether considering existing nuclear technologies, prospective next generation ones, or the switch to thorium that some propose as an alternative. Thorium, a somewhat cleaner or less risky fuel than uranium, is still unproven at the commercial scale, still presents weapons proliferation risks, and still would take years or decades and cost huge sums to establish. Too little, too late, for too much.
I don’t object to researchers studying better nuclear power ideas, and I certainly don’t think we should shut down operating nuclear plants before their retirement dates. But looking forward, nuclear seems too slow and costly a path to redemption, while renewable energy is already established, becoming steadily cheaper, and ready to go right now.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Nuclear power running out of juice"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation


  1. Certainly the Nuclear / renewable / fossil fuels choices are a difficult and divisive debate amongst Greens, and indeed any caring citizen I do not see renewables as being any quicker at getting us out of the dilemma as any other. There is no possible way that wind, solar or tidal can replace our current demand for electric power and even less chance of doing so if we convert out transportation systems to such, even if there is a breakthrough in hydro storage methods. It may be that in the coming decades that methods are found to better generate power from such systems and to enable us to store it for use when needed to increase the reliability of supply by such methods but they are a long way off. There is much more potential use of hydroelectric that is more reliable but this too has received much opposition for 'environmentalists'. No mater what we do there is a cost both fiscally and environmentally, its a matter of finding a balance. At this point I believe nuclear is here to stay for a long while.

    1. Ah, but it's a bit of a trap to assume that we simply MUST replace all of our current non-renewable demand. We could actually reduce our need by as much as half with a decent program of efficiency & conservation. Our electricity demand in Ontario is already going down even without that. There are many places with similar quality of living to us that get by with half or less the electricity - even, for example, New York State. Going in that direction saves us from needing huge amounts of new generation.