Why a Green Future Needs Nuclear Power

by Mark Lynas

The following is an excerpt from Nuclear 2.0: Why a Green Future Needs Nuclear Power (2013) and is reprinted with permission.

The carbon challenge

Now we are entering a different era, however. The global warming crisis is sufficiently urgent that fossil fuels must be gradually phased out and replaced with alternatives that can maintain an energy-intensive and growing human civilization without destroying the life-supporting capacity of the biosphere.

The standard prescription for tackling climate change is to mobilize a combination of energy efficiency and solar and wind power. While efficiency is clearly a good idea in both theory and practice – you get more services per unit of energy – requiring this combination to actually reduce overall energy use is a different matter. Historically, greater efficiency tends to accompany an increase in overall energy use: Western economies are generally twice as efficient as they were 40 years ago, but use far more energy in total. There are good economic reasons for this: efficiency reduces the price of energy in comparison to other factors of production, thereby stimulating demand for energy.

That leaves wind and solar, in the orthodox view. Both are unambiguously low-carbon; I have no truck with skeptics on that point. Research I conducted with the environmental writer Chris Goodall, drawing on several months of data from the UK electricity grid and published in the Guardian, indicated that current wind in Britain successfully displaces gas-fired generation on a megawatt-hour for megawatt-hour basis, and therefore certainly does reduce overall CO2 emissions. Somewhat to my surprise, our research almost exactly confirmed the aggregate CO2 mitigation totals claimed by the wind industry.

It is a myth that at low penetrations – 10 percent for the UK, US, and most other countries – wind intermittency results in fossil-fueled power plants inefficiently ramping up and down. The additional intermittency is easily absorbed by current system overcapacity, and is less of a problem for grid managers than people switching on their electric coffeemakers or tea kettles during unscheduled television advertising breaks in major sports tournaments, for example.  Yes, this might change with wind power at over 20 to 30 percent of the total in a grid, but there is enormous debate about what the implications are and how they might be managed. For the foreseeable future, in my view, the more renewables we can add to the grid everywhere, the better.

There are other clear benefits to renewables, too. Unlike thermal power generation using the steam cycle, wind and solar photovoltaics use little to no water. (Some water may be needed for cleaning panels in the case of the latter when deployed in windy, dusty areas.) This makes these power sources especially appropriate for arid areas, where the strongest solar radiation is likely to be found. Renewables are also pollution-free in their operation, whereas burning coal and oil emits cancer-causing particulates, acidic sulphates, mercury and other toxins into our air and water. Although there have been cases of damaging river pollution in Chinese solar manufacturing, these are not inherent to the technology any more than in any other comparable industrial process. Toxic metals used in some solar cells such as cadmium and tellurium can be recycled indefinitely, as can most components of wind turbines, including the ‘rare earth’ elements.

Unfortunately, renewables now encounter a rising tide of political opposition. Although aesthetic concerns are necessarily subjective, some people seem to have an implacable gut hatred of wind turbines in their backyards; if ever the term ‘nimby’ were appropriate, it would be for these objectors. Likewise, while there clearly are serious issues regarding bird and bat kills in some specific areas of conservation concern, this will not – and should not – preclude the vast majority of both on and offshore wind farm developments.

Some habitat loss concerns with specific species such as the desert tortoise have also affected the solar industry, but the truth is the earth has vast areas of barely-inhabited deserts, and devoting a few tens of thousands of square kilometers to solar farms is not going to lead to a major crisis in biodiversity. I cannot think of a single environmental objection to putting photovoltaics on rooftops, moreover, and there are extensive paved and urban areas which could be covered in this way.

Renewables revolution

As most readers will doubtless have heard, solar and wind energies have expanded enormously in recent years. Between 2011 and 2012 wind energy generation saw a worldwide growth of 18 percent and solar enjoyed an even bigger increase of nearly 60 percent. This is the ‘renewables revolution’ in action – total wind-generated electricity grew by 200 percent in the last five years, while solar grew by 1,200 percent. Costs of solar photovoltaic in particular have fallen dramatically, enabling a much more rapid upscaling of solar than once seemed realistic. In many countries solar PV is on the verge of achieving the long-sought goal of ‘grid parity,’ promising even more rapid expansion in future without the need for subsidies.

These figures have unfortunately generated a lot of hype, however, and to understand them properly we need to consider not just relative growth rates but absolute energy generation totals. Solar’s meteoric 1200 percent growth over the last five years took it from producing 0.01 percent of global primary energy to 0.17 percent – from the infinitesimal to the still rather small, in other words. Wind, with its 200 percent growth, went from providing 0.3 percent to 0.95 percent of global primary energy. These are the numbers that matter in climate terms, because with such small amounts of energy production, current wind and solar must necessarily be having only a small effect on emissions. According to wind industry figures, wind farms saved about 350 million tonnes of CO2 in 2011, about 1 percent of global energy-related emissions. 

Moreover, wind and solar are fighting to increase their relatively small shares of an energy consumption pie that is growing rapidly larger each year. As I pointed out above, the past decade saw massive energy-use increases in developing countries, and the vast majority of this growth came from coal. In the year 2011-12 (these figures were released in June 2013), coal added 101 mtoe, gas 73, oil 49, wind 18 and solar 8 mtoe to global energy supplies. (‘Mtoe’ stands for ‘million tonnes of oil equivalent,’ an internationally accepted standard unit of energy.) Coal therefore added five times more to global primary energy than wind did last year, and 12 times more than solar. This was no annual blip: between 2007 and 2012 coal added 7 times more to primary energy than wind, and 30 times more than solar.

Let’s double check my numbers by looking at just electricity production – a reasonable thing to do given that most coal, and all grid-scale wind and solar, are used to generate electrical power. In 2012, wind generated 2.3 percent of global electricity; solar 0.4 percent. World electrical generation rose by an annual average of 515 TWh (terawatt-hours) between 2007-2012. (That’s nearly a new Brazil [553 TWh/year] added to the global grid each year!) Wind accounted for about 14 percent of this average annual increase, and solar just over 3 percent. Most of the rest was coal and gas. For just 2011-2012, in the midst of the renewables revolution, solar accounted for 8 percent of the increased generation, and wind 18 percent. The numbers are improving, but not by much, and certainly not as much as the enthusiasts tend to claim.

As I said above, please do not read this analysis above as being in any way anti-renewables. I am not suggesting that because renewables are still being outpaced by coal, this must always be the case – indeed it cannot be if we are to get a grip on carbon emissions. But I think this reality check about our current energy situation is essential to get the true picture of the sheer scale of the challenge ahead. As I said before, I’m a supporter of renewables; my intent here is to demonstrate with real-world numbers that it stretches credulity to argue, as most greens still do, that solar and wind on their own can supply enough power to a rapidly-growing civilization to solve climate change on the diminishing timescales we have available.

Breaking the nuclear taboo

For the majority of my career as an environmental writer and campaigner, I either ignored or disparaged nuclear power. My first climate change book, High Tide: News From a Warming World, published in 2004, didn’t mention the N-word at all, even as I ended the narrative about global warming impacts on places as far afield as Peru, Tuvalu, and Alaska by imploring readers to “take personal action to reduce emissions” and “keep repeating the climate change message.” My second climate book, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, did mention nuclear, but only in one sentence, most of which warned about “deadly accidents” and “the still-unsolved question of what to do with highly radioactive wastes,” all standard environmentalist talking points. The National Geographic television adaptation of Six Degrees featured a whole sequence on nuclear – but this was all about the distant dream of nuclear fusion, not the current reality of nuclear fission.

Still, during that Oxford University energy conference I mentioned at the outset of this book a light bulb had gone on somewhere in my head, and in my capacity then as a fortnightly columnist for the British magazine the New Statesman, I ventured a short article wondering whether nuclear ought perhaps to be reconsidered as part of the future energy mix in light of climate change. In the UK, I had later discovered, our 25 percent nuclear electricity was being steadily reduced as aging nuclear plants were decommissioned, threatening to push up carbon emissions. Should we not at least consider replacing them?

Fearful of the possible reaction, I hastened to reassure readers that “I’m not suggesting that nuclear is a panacea,” and acknowledged once again the potential for “Chernobyl-style accidents or terrorist attacks,” as well as the supposed “legacy of toxic waste for millennia.” Moreover, I wrote, having more nuclear should not be allowed to crowd out renewables, and “can reduce carbon emissions only as part of a combined dash for renewables and energy efficiency, buying us time while truly clean energy systems are developed.”  This was not exactly a full-scale assault on the core philosophy of the environmental movement.

Even so, within a couple of hours of my New Statesman piece being published online, hurt and angry responses began to flood in from friends and readers alike. Some questioned my motivations: I was now a fraud, a sell-out, an industry shill. Others were simple one-liners – “But what about the nuclear waste?” – clearly intended to shut down debate rather than engage in any real discussion. One response I have never forgotten came from an activist friend who blamed me for having undermined her whole life’s work in that one rather cautious 500-word essay.

Nuclear and the environment

Despite all the high emotion that nuclear power seems to cause, few people remember the rather prosaic fact that all a nuclear reactor does is generate heat. This heat boils water into steam, which expands to drive turbines, just as in any other thermal power plant. Unlike in a coal or gas plant, however, nuclear does not release CO2 because it operates via fission rather than combustion of fuel. (There are emissions produced in the mining and refining of uranium, and via the concrete and steel of a power plant. Most experts agree that nuclear has emissions comparable to those of wind power.) The problem is that the splitting apart of atoms of uranium to generate this heat releases highly-radioactive ‘fission product’ elements which need to be safeguarded in order to prevent them harming people.

I recently visited one of the UK’s fleet of ‘Advanced Gas-Cooled Reactors’ at Hinkley Point B in Somerset, and was conducted on a tour by the plant’s owner, EDF Energy. I was able to walk around right on top of the reactor core, and could feel a gentle humming as the gas circulated below my feet to conduct away heat being produced by the fissioning of uranium in the fuel rods. The core is so heavily protected by concrete shielding that I needed no special protection (other than the standard-issue hazmat suit and goggles which are mandatory for everyone inside the building) and the dosimeter my guide was carrying remained obstinately at a zero reading the entire time. Looking round the turbine hall afterwards, I could see a digital display indicating that the plant was generating 500 megawatts of clean power, enough to run a small city.

Nuclear power’s singular environmental advantage can be summed up in the term ‘energy density’ – consider that a golf ball-sized lump of uranium, weighing just 780 grams, can deliver enough energy to cover all your lifetime use, including electricity, car driving, jet flights, food, and manufactured goods – a total of 6.4 million kWh. To get the same energy output from coal would require 3,200 tonnes of black rock, a mass equivalent to 800 adult elephants and resulting in more than 11,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide. The volume of this pile of coal would be 4,000 cubic meters: you can imagine it as a cube 16 meters in height, depth and width, about the size of a large 5-story building.

The uranium fuel cycle is not the only way that nuclear power can be generated. Recently the potential of thorium as a nuclear fuel has generated a lot of interest – thorium is much more abundant than uranium in the Earth’s crust, and could conceivably power advanced human civilization for tens of thousands of years. (All these heavy elements were originally fused in a supernova, an epochal explosion of a previous star more than 5 billion years ago, before our own sun and solar system came into existence. What we are doing is merely reversing the energy cycle which that supernova generated.) Either way, nuclear power is the only means by which we can generate prodigious amounts of energy with only a tiny human footprint on the planetary biosphere.

The antinuclear movement

As I outline above, a dispassionate examination of nuclear power yields no a priori reasons why environmentalists should be against it; quite the opposite in fact. Indeed until the early 1970s many established green groups were cautiously in favor of this burgeoning clean energy source: the Sierra Club, for example, embraced nuclear power in California as a better alternative to flooding scenic valleys for hydroelectric power. But something later turned this lukewarm support from the environmental movement into implacable multidecadal hatred.

We could speculate endlessly about what this was. The historian Spencer Weart, in his magisterial work The Rise of Nuclear Fear (which I highly recommend to anyone interested in this area), suggests that opposition to nuclear reactors may have been a kind of psychological displacement effect, where suppressed fear of nuclear missiles found expression in activism against neighborhood reactors. Certainly many of the lifelong antinuclear power activists started out as antinuclear missiles activists, such as Helen Caldicott and Barry Commoner – moving seamlessly from campaigning about radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons tests to trying to ban nuclear power. As Weart writes about Caldicott: “When she moved to the United States [in 1977] and found nobody there interested in bombs any longer, she began to fight reactors. Entire organizations took the same path.”

The idea of the ‘China Syndrome’ – that a nuclear reactor faced with loss of cooling could somehow eject enough radioactive material to sterilize a huge area – was first promoted by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a green group originally founded at East Coast universities, and helped win the UCS national recognition and a host more members. Many people wrongly thought (and still do think) that a nuclear reactor can explode like a nuclear bomb, and the idea of a ‘nuclear explosion’ causing similar levels of devastation whether from a reactor or a weapon was a psychologically powerful one, however physically implausible it might be in reality. The heart of this opposition came from nuclear fear, specifically fear of radiation, as an invisible, cancer-causing ‘poison’ which could harm – so it was claimed – millions of people through the operation of nuclear power.

Early environmentalists thought that radioactivity was somehow uniquely dangerous and polluting. E.F. Schumacher wrote in 1973 that radiation was “the most serious agent of pollution of the environment and the greatest threat to man’s survival on Earth.” As the Clamshell Alliance, formed to oppose the construction of the Seabrook nuclear station in New Hampshire, wrote in its 1976 founding declaration: “Nuclear power poses a mortal threat to people and the environment.” A later ‘Declaration of Nuclear Resistance’ adopted in 1977 stated: “Our [antinuclear] stand is in defense of the health, safety, and general well-being of ourselves and of future generations of all life on this planet.” 

Against this background, the Sierra Club’s initial refusal to campaign against California’s Diablo Canyon nuclear plant could not possibly continue: in a top-level bust-up which nearly destroyed the Sierra Club, executive director David Brower resigned in 1969 and went on to found Friends of the Earth as a ‘properly’ antinuclear environmental group. By 1974 the Sierra Club had abandoned any attempt to carve an independent path: its board of directors duly fell into line with the new antinuclear orthodoxy, and the organization has held to it ever since.

One of the most widely read antinuclear books of the time was The New Tyranny: How Nuclear Power Enslaves Us, published by the Austrian journalist Robert Jungk in 1977. Jungk used his personal history as an anti-Nazi resistance campaigner during the Second World War to draw moralistic parallels between Nazism and nuclear power. He speculated that nuclear scientists secretly dreamed of creating an “improved race of human beings who can tolerate huge doses of radiation,” and devoted a whole chapter entitled ‘Citizens Under Guard’ to the “ominous role nuclear power could play in converting a democratic nation into a totalitarian atomic state.” Jungk later stood as presidential candidate for the Austrian Green Party, and helped to instill a loathing of nuclear power which is still widely held in both Austria and Germany today.

Conspiratorial thinking about nuclear power was also rampant in the US, where activists believed that power company executives would stop at nothing to contaminate and poison the population in the name of utility profits, fictional scenarios acted out in Hollywood movies like The China Syndrome and Silkwood. The extraordinary coincidence between the release of The China Syndrome and the accident at Three Mile Island (TMI) in 1979 led to a national panic: few in the media or general public were prepared to believe ‘official’ reassurances about safety and containment – even though they later turned out to largely be true. (Only a tiny release of radiation took place at TMI, far too small to cause any health effects in the surrounding population.)

On one occasion, opposition to nuclear power did spill over into outright violence: on the night of 18 January 1982, five RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenades (apparently sourced from Germany’s murderous Red Army Faction) were fired across the Rhone River in France at the unfinished containment dome of the Superphenix fast reactor, where earlier mass protests involving thousands had left dozens injured and one person dead. The perpetrator Chaim Nissim – who remained anonymous for two decades – later became a Green Party MP in Switzerland, and today works as a member of a Swiss think-tank promoting renewable energy. To date this episode is still the only terrorist attack to have been carried out against a civil nuclear installation in the world.

A world safe for coal

The success of the antinuclear movement in the 1970s guaranteed an increased use of coal for decades to come, as proposed nuclear plants across the western world were canceled and replaced by coal plants. There are countless stories with specific examples; one of my favorites is of the Austrian plant at Zwentendorf, a mid-size nuclear station. It was fully completed and then closed down in 1978 before it could generate a single watt after antinuclear activists narrowly won a nationwide referendum. Today, although Austria has 60 percent hydropower, it still burns coal and oil for a third of its electricity: had Zwentendorf and the other proposed nuclear plants been allowed to run by the nascent Greens, Austrians might have enjoyed carbon-neutral electricity for the past 35 years.

The Zwentendorf story has an irresistible coda: in 2009 it was ‘converted’ into a solar power plant. At the opening ceremony, backed by enormous Greenpeace banners declaring ‘Energy Revolution – Climate Solution’ and featuring Hollywood celebrities like Andie MacDowell, 1,000 new solar photovoltaic panels were inaugurated, having been installed at a cost of 1.2 million euros. “From radioactive beams to sunbeams – a global symbol for environmentally friendly and sustainable energy for the requirements of the future,” said the website.  A quick look at the numbers tells a different story, however: average output from the solar panels will be 20.5 kilowatts (enough to run 12 hairdryers, according to one wag) whereas the 692 megawatts it would have generated as a nuclear station would have lit up Vienna.

One can chuckle at that kind of foolish hype, but less amusing is the history of Ireland’s proposed Carnshore reactors, which were canceled after protests, rallies, and concerts were organized by antinuclear groups in the mid-1970s. A large coal plant was built instead, at Moneypoint in County Clare. Moneypoint’s two chimneys, as well as being among Ireland’s tallest constructions, are now the largest single point source of CO2 emissions in the entire country. Some of Ireland’s electricity even comes from the only source worse than coal: peat. Peat is not only more CO2-intensive than coal, but is based on the shameful industrial strip-mining of large areas of fragile and biologically irreplaceable raised peat bog.

In Spain nearly 40 nuclear plants were proposed in the 1970s, but a strong antinuclear movement succeeded in forcing a national moratorium in 1984 and only 10 were ever built. Spain today has 18 coal power plants, supplying a fifth of its power. In Australia, perhaps the most coal-dependent country in the world (despite its abundance of both solar potential and uranium deposits) nuclear power is technically illegal, thanks to a thriving antinuclear lobby and a senate vote in 1998. Australia’s per-capita carbon dioxide emissions as a result are about 18 tonnes (20 tons), higher even than America’s, with coal supplying 85 percent of domestic power.

In some places, half-built nuclear plants were converted directly to coal: an example was the William H. Zimmer plant in Ohio, whose containment building was converted to house a coal boiler instead of a reactor following protests and cost overruns in 1984. As the nuclear historian Spencer Weart writes, “Ever since the price of oil spiked in the late 1970s, wherever people refused to build more reactors almost every new electrical plant had been a coal burner.” Each time this happened, determined antinuclear coalitions of thousands of environmentally concerned citizens melted away overnight once the embattled utility had agreed to change its proposed plant from nuclear to coal.

Allens Creek, Texas; Bellefonte, Alabama; Cherokee, South Carolina; Erie, Ohio; Hartsville, Tennessee; Satsop, Washington… the full list of canceled US nuclear plants can be viewed on Wikipedia. At Shoreham in Long Island a nuclear plant was fully built, as at Zwentendorf in Austria, and then was immediately shut down due to enormous public opposition, much of it paid for and fanned by the efforts of diesel fuel delivery companies. Today it is a mausoleum – but had it been allowed to operate it would have helped make New York a carbon-neutral city for the last three decades. I calculate the total capacity of all the canceled nuclear plants to be about 140 gigawatts; roughly half the entire current installed coal capacity in the US. More than 1,000 nuclear plants were originally proposed; had they all been built, the US would now be running an entirely carbon-free electricity system.

In the United States during the heyday of the antinuclear movement between 1972 and 1984, coal consumption by US utilities doubled from 351 million to 664 million tons. Although it is often claimed by greens that their antinuclear activities were less important than the 1970s oil shocks and economic slowdown in forcing the cancellation of planned nuclear plants, during the period 1972 to 1984 the US added 170 GW of fossil-fuelled capacity to its electricity grid, and consumed 74 percent more coal-fired electricity, hardly indicative of a major reversal in the growth of overall energy consumption.

Certainly, the snowballing cost of nuclear plants was a major factor, but a significant proportion of those costs were being imposed by an ever-expanding nuclear regulatory burden which slowed or stopped development of new plants and spent fuel repositories – even more than environmental activism did. Nevertheless, constant objection by vocal antis generated increasing political risk and nuisance lawsuits and thus caused years of delays.

That is not to say that the antinuclear activists liked coal. They said they wanted solar power, and the famous ‘nuclear power no thanks’ logo of course sported a smiling sun symbol. But just as they were spectacularly successful in stopping the growth of nuclear power, they were spectacularly unsuccessful in promoting the use of solar as an alternative. By 1984 the use of solar had risen from functionally zero to 0.002 percent of US electricity generation. The history of the antinuclear movement is therefore not lit by sunshine, but shrouded in coal smoke.