I was lounging by a friend’s pool in the South of France a couple of weekends ago, enjoying a last minute surge of summer.
The issue of our energy future was raised and our gracious host stated in a matter-of-fact manner that nuclear energy was clearly the only option left available to service out energy needs. What struck me more than anything else about the statement was that there was an assumption that I had naturally adopted this position – it was the only logical conclusion.
My gut reaction to nuclear is a steadfast ‘no’. You just don’t mess with something that has the potential for destruction on the level that nuclear does. But the problem with nuclear goes beyond that.
To be able to produce as much energy as we are currently producing then our choice is basically either coal or nuclear. But we in the west need to reduce our carbon emissions my something in the order of 90% to 95% of 1990 levels by yesterday at the latest which would naturally lead us to the conclusion that nuclear is the only answer. After all, Global Warming is probably the most serious issue humanity has ever faced so we must stop emitting greenhouse gases immediately.
I’m not sure that I entirely agree with the assertion that nuclear could meet all our energy needs, or that coal and nuclear are our only two choices, but it is certainly fair to say that we cannot produce the amount of energy we are currently using use of renewables. There’s just no way.
The issue for has always been, not how the energy is produced, but how much we use. In a sense I don’t care if we’re using coal or nuclear providing we reduce our energy consumption by 90% to 95% (possibly even more). However if we only need to produce 5% of what we are currently producing then sourcing our energy from renewables is suddenly feasible and should be done for a wide range of health and environmental reasons.
Needless to say, such a drastic change in energy consumption means massive changes in the way the world operates going far beyond major infrastructural changes.
To create a low-carbon world we need to continue to produce enough energy to do the work necessary to reduce the amount of energy we use, keep as many people as possible from starvation and start building the required renewable energy generators. Activities such as the construction of a wind farm requires time and energy which is why we’ve left all this far too late. For now, the only way we can generate that energy is through existing sources of energy, ie coal (or nuclear if you’re in the USA, Japan or France).
Which is why all this nuclear business bothers me. Even if we could, hypothetically, mine uranium in a manner that doesn’t destroy the environment and had a genuine solution to the storage of nuclear waste, the lead time for a nuclear power plant is at least a good 15 to 20 years, probably more. And the lead-time only gets longer when you start talking about wide spread rollout. In 15 or 20 years, it’s all too late.
Where are you going to put all these plants? I don’t want them in my backyard and I’m pretty sure you don’t, but they need to be close to urban centers where most of the energy is consumed. They also need to be near fresh water supplies. Similar problems exists for the storage of nuclear waste. Sorting all this out takes time – lots of time – and then you have to actually build a nuclear power plant which is a time consuming task unto itself.
The pro-nuclear argument also seems to assume significant technological advancements in the breakdown and storage of nuclear waste – technologies which may be available but remain largely untested because very few nuclear power plants have been built of late.
But ultimately what bothers me about nuclear is that it is very 19th Century, industrialist thinking. It’s a ‘science will save us’ or ‘we command nature’ sort of position. It’s a technological fix to a problem caused by an over reliance on technological solutions.
Our energy future has to be low tech. Windmills are reasonably low tech. Mirrors focusing the sun’s rays to heat something up is low tech. We need to use the technologies that are available to us now and nuclear just isn’t one of those.
This leaves me in the awkward position of supporting a coal fired renewable energy future.