Nuclear Power: Thanks, but No Thanks

By Stephan Lewandowsky
Professor, School of Experimental Psychology and Cabot Institute, University of Bristol
Posted on 8 August 2011
Filed under Energy, Specific Solutions

In two recent posts (here and here), colleague David Hodgkinson eloquently presented the case for nuclear power as one strategy to deal with climate change. Rather than revisiting all arguments in favour of nuclear power or against it, he focused on three core issues: (a) expense, (b) nuclear waste, and (c) militarization. In addition, Hodgkinson suggests that unless we put in place an infrastructure now, an ostensibly “cheap” nuclear power option will be precluded when the world gets serious about emission cuts within the next 10 years or so.

In this counterpoint, I note several points of agreement with Hodgkinson while also raising several other issues that, in my view, speak against reliance on nuclear power as an alternative source of energy.

(a) Expenses

There is no question that coal-generated power today is comparatively cheap only because the full externalities—namely, the short-term environmental and long-term climatological costs of emissions from fossil fuels—are not included in the cost of power generation. But does this necessarily mean that nuclear power would be the preferred alternative if the externalities of fossil fuels were considered?

Two points speak against that: First, throughout the history of nuclear power realistic insurance coverage has proved impossible to obtain on the free market. This suggests that the costing of the nuclear option has been ignoring large externalities—namely the true risk of its operation—in much the same way as coal.

The true cost of nuclear power is hidden because around the world governments have been condoning the operation of reactors without insisting on insurance coverage that is commensurate to the actual risks. (The situation varies from country to country, but this statement is an accurate summary).

It is extremely doubtful that a privately-insured nuclear industry would be viable at all. The world’s taxpayers are thus ultimately underwriting an industry that private insurers won’t cover in full.

Does this sound like the energy of the future?

(b) Waste

The issue of nuclear waste is sufficiently complex to escape summary in a few blog posts. What is certain, however, is that nuclear power generation to date has created a large amount of “legacy waste” that is as nasty as it is long-lasting. Nastier, by far, than the original nuclear fuel which seems vegetarian by comparison to the waste product.

How long-lasting? Thousands if not hundreds of thousands of years.

So, in a less-than-benign sense, nuclear power already is the power of the future—and it will remain a future consideration for thousands or more years even after the last reactor is switched off. (There may be a technological solution to this problem but at the moment it appears inadvisable to take it for granted.)

Philosopher John Nolt from the University of Tennessee has recently argued (e.g., Nolt, 2011) that our inaction with respect to climate change is tantamount to the “domination” of future generations—and hence deeply unethical because those future generations have had no say in the fate that we bequeath upon them. The same argument can be made about leaving behind nuclear waste for generations to come: None of those generations had a choice in the matter, and yet we are forcing them to deal with the potentially devastating consequences that arise from our (arguably) poor policy decisions.

In a nutshell, a strong argument can be made that passing on a large and inescapable risk to future generations is unethical.

And surely, our future energy should not be unethical.

(c) Militarization

Hodgkinson argues that militarization of nuclear power is without precedent and the risk overstated. I agree. But recent events surrounding Iran, which by the accounts of the IAEA only has a peaceful nuclear program (no military activities have been convincingly uncovered to date), shed another light on this matter.

And that is the risk to peace and democracy not by direct militarization but by possibly even more pernicious indirect routes that inevitably arise from civilian generation of nuclear power. Simply put, nuclear power, even if pursued entirely for peaceful purposes, poses a security risk. Unlike a wind turbine, which may at worst rob a bank, nuclear reactors are an acknowledged attractive target for terrorists.

And because they are a target for terrorism, and because the consequences of a terror attack on nuclear installations are particularly devastating, responsible governments are forced to ramp up the security apparatus surrounding nuclear power. The resulting likely erosion of democracy was analysed by Robert Jungk in the 1970s in his book the Nuclear State. (Google link here.)

A full analysis of Jungk’s thesis is beyond the present scope: Suffice it to say that at the very least, awareness of the implications of nuclear power for democracy must be firmly on the radar for anyone who is considering the future of energy generation in Australia.

(d) Future options

Hodgkinson argues that once the world gets serious about emission cuts, Australia needs to be ready by preparing a nuclear infrastructure now, lest we get caught out by having to rely entirely on renewable energy sources.

But would that be all that bad?  

In this context it is crucial to consider the actions of Germany, which has just decided to exit nuclear power at a rapid pace. At the same time, Germany is pursuing aggressive emission cuts—40% by 2020 compared to 1990 and 80-95% by 2050.

How?

By pursuing a three-pronged strategic plan.

Lest one think that Australia does not have the intellectual or material resources to pursue a similar energy future, a blueprint for our future can be found here.

At the moment, however, the future is taking place elsewhere. While some Australian cities are blessed with 3000 or more hours of sunshine per year (e.g., Perth, with 3200 hours), German cities must make do with just over half that (1700 hours is considered luxurious by German standards).

Yet, Germany has 17,000 MW of installed solar power-generating capacity, compared to Australia’s 300 MW.  Adjusted for hours of sunshine, that’s 100 times more than Australia. Which is one reason why we are one of the dirtiest power generators on this planet.

References

Nolt, J. (2011). Greenhouse gas emission and the domination of posterity. In Arnold, D. G. (Ed.),  The ethics of global climate change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 60-76

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