Nuclear fissions green movement

Nuclear protest The green movement is traditionally anti-nuclear - but there is a rival force emerging

What I'm sure some will find an entertaining row and others an annoying one has broken out this week between scions of the green movement over nuclear power.

It's largely a UK-focused argument, but many of the points being raised are cogent for the rest of the world too.

I've been told that to a certain extent it's my fault by publishing, on Monday, an article relating to a letter that four former Friends of the Earth UK directors including Tony Juniper sent to UK Prime Minister David Cameron.

Their top line was that Mr Cameron's nuclear keenness is effectively putting Britain's climate and energy policies in the hands of French companies - and, as those companies are largely owned by the French government, putting those policies under the control of Nicolas Sarkozy.

Their deeper arguments concern the economics of nuclear power, and they're more important in the long run than a bit of national stirring.

Battle was joined later in the week by a group of five self-styled "writers and thinkers" including George Monbiot, with whom many years ago, when a sound engineer, I nearly went to make a documentary on pygmies in West Africa, and who (more pertinently) was last year judged by his peers to be the most influential environment journalist in the UK.

Their principal argument is a balance of risks: climate change is more serious than the various risks associated with nuclear power, they judge, ergo the UK and many other places must forge ahead.

If the reasons why the dispute is important were not evident enough, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) conveniently spelled them out for us this week in its Environmental Outlook to 2050:

"World energy demand in 2050 will be 80% higher... and still 85% reliant on fossil fuel-based energy. This could lead to a 50% increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions globally and worsening air pollution," it says.

Climate change glossary
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Action that helps cope with the effects of climate change - for example construction of barriers to protect against rising sea levels, or conversion to crops capable of surviving high temperatures and drought.

"The atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases could reach 685 parts per million (ppm) CO2-equivalents by 2050. As a result, global average temperature is projected to be 3-6C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century."

Though the temperature rise figures are the most far-reaching, the number that should probably make both camps in the green battle do a bit of head-scratching is the one for energy.

What the OECD is basically saying is that all non-fossil fuel technologies are set to stay so unattractive for the next 38 years that for all the talk of costs coming down, of side-benefits such as cleaner air, of super-grids and devolved generation, humanity will still be burning coal, oil and gas for five-sixths of its energy needs.

The OECD makes clear that this fossil-fuelled future isn't immutable, and indeed puts forward a raft of options for changing it - in particular, establishing a global carbon price and slashing fossil fuel subsidies.

You can broadly translate this prescription into "having enough political will" - and the history of the last couple of decades, in a range of arenas including the G20 and the UN climate convention, shows that assuming this will materialise is a strategy likely to result in disappointment.

Coal labourers Coal may be dirty stuff - but many societies still find it attractive, not least on cost grounds

So if either the pro-nuke or anti-nuke greens are to see the future they both want - one powered by copious amounts of low-carbon energy - the obvious strategy is to map out a route for change that doesn't involve waiting for the Godot of political will.

At root, the trick must be to make alternatives more attractive than fossils in whatever ways will work.

Some governments are helping that process along, such as Germany's feed-in tariffs that have made such a difference to the solar photovoltaics industry.

But it may be that if low-carbon technologies can't stand on their own financial feet, they'll never get much beyond the 15% share that the OECD predicts under business as usual.

That being so, perhaps the forces of General Juniper and Marshall Monbiot could concentrate some thinking power on the key question of how their respective causes can be made appealing enough that everybody joins up willingly.

As the pro-nuclear camp in this arena is also pro-renewables and pro-efficiency, a lot of the questions are ones they share.

On efficiency - often described as a "low-hanging fruit" despite appearing pretty resistant to plucking - one enduring question is how to persuade people simply to use less.

Another is how to combat the issue that while fridges and cars and light bulbs are becoming more frugal, people are buying more of them.

A "one fridge per household" policy would be likely to prove as popular as China's "one child per family" - so how else can it be done?

Pumped storage station in Wales Despite being an old and reliable technology, pumped storage is rarely deployed

On renewables, the seemingly eternal questions are cost - on just about everything bar hydro, geothermal and (increasingly) onshore wind - and intermittency.

The second is a minefield because the technical responses make a rich mix, ranging from "it's not a problem because if you have enough wind turbines they compensate for each other" to "you need a fossil fuel power station on standby for every wind farm".

The facts lie somewhere in the middle. Next to them is a big fat bin labelled "energy storage", and it's virtually empty.

And I heard an interesting comment the other week from someone connected with grid issues - that the engineers like to have a bit of wind power in the mix because wind turbines are the easiest thing by far to switch on and off.

How widely that view is shared, I don't know; but on the opinion-forming side at least there's clearly a deal of work to be done to convince people that renewables can easily provide baseload power when wind turbines demonstrably stop, the Sun demonstrably stops shining, tides demonstrably come and go and very few countries have anything in the way of a storage capacity.

On the nuclear side, the cost issues are complex partially because the timelines are so long.

But transparency there should surely be. A supposedly open market that is rigged so far in one direction is no longer open; let us be honest about these things.

And although pro-nuclear voices (industry and greens) argue, correctly, that Fukushima didn't kill anyone and that the dangers of radioactivity are often exaggerated, that doesn't stop people not wanting to live in a potential fallout zone.

It doesn't wash away the radioactive caesium nor the fear of it; nor does it put the countless billions of dollars that the Fukushima incident cost back into Japanese national coffers.

Clearly, if the idea of a 3C or 4C or even 6C world scares you, these are the kind of hard questions you have to answer about the technology of your choice.

And they are hard; if they were easy, they wouldn't be questions anymore, and green would no longer be going against green in the battle of the energy opinionosphere.

Richard Black Article written by Richard Black Richard Black Former environment correspondent

Farewell and thanks for reading

This is my last entry for this page - I'm leaving the BBC to work, initially, on ocean conservation issues.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    " reserves of uranium will last ~80 years..."

    No idea where you got your numbers; But considering reactor grade uranium has a 'half-life' of 20,000+ years, the point is moot

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    I cannot understand the obsession with nuclear, it only provides 3% of the UK's total energy and current global reserves of uranium will last ~80 years at current consumption rates. The world's developing countries are on a mad dash for nuclear so reserves will reduce sharply, substantial new discoveries notwithstanding. Given this, how can nuclear tackle long term climate change?

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    When the lights go out twill be interesting to see if the objection to nukes is still there. I doubt it personally. Its a bit like folks that complain about the cost of their sewage bill. Put a blockage in the outpipe & suddenly it seems very cheap By Jove. Peak oil, biofuel issues etc. Just dont build nukes on a tectonic plate edge. German brill idea to go no-nuke is already in trouble. 400 chrcs

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    3. Barry Woods

    The figure of 3-6 came from the OECD report.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    @1. Nail firmly hit on the head - I couldn't have said it better myself!

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    No getting round the fact our life is totally reliant on electricity. Clean sources not large enough or reliable/fossil fuels r dirty+running out. Options-wait for the lights to go out+ civilisation as we know it to collapse- all young people to scream when the phones eternally clutched in their hand don't work? Or build some nuclear power stations? We want all mod cons? Gotta pay all the way!

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    At last an acknowledgement of the storage problem and an acceptance that we need Nuclear pro tem.
    Now all we need is a decision to try and create a global supergrid to take advantage of the fact that somewhere on the Globe there is a Sun shining, a wind blowing a tide rising, waves rolling and large area's of otherwise unusable desert etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Why not mention the names of the 'self styled' writer and thinkers...
    why this attitude?

    Fred Pearce is a very respected environmental journalist (unlike former 'sound engineer' George Monbiot ;-) ?) ! having writen for New Scientist and Guardian for decades.

    Mark Lynas (who was actually in the room at Copenhagen, unlike R Black?)

    One could easily say R Black is 'self styled'

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Reject ideology and look at the science. How many people back something isn't important, it's about the real-world situation and what's the right thing to do - Ideology won't help anyone when we're facing future shortage crises.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Anyone who thinks that while the population keeps on increasing we can reduce our reliance on nuclear, and building more windmills, is in for a really nasty shock when the lights go out. Sooner rather than later

    Want to reduce nuke? Reduce the population

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    A considerable proportion of our power generation infrastructure, nuclear and coal, is due for retirement over the coming decade.

    Their replacements have been delayed by political reluctance to make unpopular choices.

    We have alredy, by default, chosen supply shortages as our default energy management technique for the 2020s.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    if the idea of 3,4& 6C scares you...

    just about sums up what is wrong at the BBC.
    There is also the possibility, 0.5, 1.0, 1.2, 1.5, 2.0C and nothing particulary damaging, time to have the rational debate possibly, rather than activism?

    As we still do not even know if cloud feedbacks are negative or positive (looking -) I wonder how a few years of natural cooling would efferct the politics?

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    “Their principal argument is a balance of risks…”

    The use of the word ‘argument’ is interesting.

    If a few of these would-be opinion-formers showed that they were capable of basic reasoning, we could have more confidence in their ideas.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Greens protesting every aspect of nuclear have left us with health and safety rules that make it expensive. If they hadn't killed it off in the UK we wouldn't need the French. We are heading for an energy crisis that a bit of loft insulation will not fix. We need to get cracking at frakking.


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