Nuclear power, global warming and the energy crisis

Submitted by Anon on 10 December, 2005 - 12:35

By Josh Robinson

According to figures from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), mean global temperature has risen by up to 0.6°C since the late nineteenth century. Recent years have been among the hottest since records began. Global sea-level has risen by up to 25 cm since 1900. These trends look set to continue. The best case scenario sees global temperature set to rise by at least 2°C (relative to 1900) before 2100. It could be closer to 4°C. Sea level looks likely to rise by up to a metre. Both droughts and floods will become more severe.

There is strong evidence to suggest that these changes have human causes, particularly through the increase in the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. (From http://www.ipcc.ch/pub/sarsum1.htm.) Although business is the source of the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions, it is almost certain that the world’s poor will suffer most.

If we hope to avoid (or rather, mitigate) the likely catastrophes, carbon emissions must be cut. Drastically. This must involve a reduction in energy consumption, the generation of electricity from non-fossil fuels, or a combination of these two measures. To this end, Blair has recently made the construction of a new generation of domestic nuclear power stations central to the investigations to be carried out in the government’s energy review.

Unsurprisingly, this has been met with condemnation from environmentalists, with a stream of NGOs led by Greenpeace, clamouring to get the press to say that nuclear power stations are expensive, dangerous, and present a target for terrorists. However, for all this lively rhetoric there is no a priori reason why investigation should preclude in advance consideration of nuclear power.

The arguments put forward by Greenpeace are perhaps not the most convincing. Cost in and of itself should certainly not raise objections: as ever, the issue should be who pays. We should certainly not shrink from demanding increased taxation of corporations and the rich in order to fund a measure which would remove one of the most threatening dangers to a huge proportion of the world’s population. And while the last few years have made talk of a terrorist threat more likely to hit the headlines, the suggestion that such a threat should prevent development is about as absurd as saying that we shouldn’t build large-scale office blocks in case Bin Laden is tempted to send someone flying into them.

Safety, however, should be more of a concern: that of both the workers in any new power station and the people living around it. However, the risks remain immensely difficult to measure. There are areas around Sellafield where leukaemia is more prevalent, but this has not been attributed conclusively to the nuclear power plant. Accidents pose the potential for severe contamination, but it is difficult to know just how unlikely they are without trusting the perhaps less than objective claims of the nuclear industry.

Storing radioactive waste poses the possibility of long-term problems. Temporary storage in spent fuel pods and dry cask storage cannot last for ever, and again it is people in the poorest areas who are most likely to suffer the ill-effects, especially while the market facilitates the dumping of waste in areas where there are lower levels of awareness of the risks and often markets for scavenged material. The risks from nuclear waste are perhaps not insuperable, but (unsurprisingly) it seems that a capitalist economy is unable to protect the most vulnerable from danger.

However, there remains the question of how much energy is required to produce energy in nuclear reactors. Given the energy costs involved — including mining uranium, extracting the 0.71% of uranium-235 which is present in natural uranium, building the reactor, running it while operative, safely disposing of the waste materials and then decommissioning the reactor when no longer usable — it is not certain how much energy is actually there to be gained by nuclear generation. One internet-based study (http://www.oprit.rug.nl/deenen/) claims that as rich uranium ores are used up, nuclear generation of electricity will begin to produce more carbon dioxide than if fossil fuels were burnt directly to produce electricity.

I do not have the skills necessary to evaluate the accuracy of this claim. However, it certainly casts doubt over the claim that nuclear power, even ignoring the contingent risks, represents the panacea that will solve our energy needs, even if generation could be democratically accountable and carried out under workers’ control. But given that it is likely that nuclear power will become less rather than more energy-efficient over time, it would perhaps make more sense to place more resources into renewable energy including tidal, wind and solar generation.

Even a combination of nuclear and renewable energy looks insufficient to meet the energy demands of a human population growing at its current rate. In the absence of a sustainable way of generating this energy, it looks as if investigations into non-fossil sources will have to go hand-in-hand with measures to decrease energy consumption. There are going to be some difficult choices to make.

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