Wrapup on Nuclear Power Series

We can confront climate change only if many of us change our behavior dramatically. This may mean driving and flying less, driving more fuel-efficient cars, driving at lower speeds, using efficient bulbs and appliances, insulating, and no longer heating, cooling, and lighting empty rooms. It may mean learning to communicate the science, impacts, solutions, and urgency, what comes up for us emotionally and spiritually when we consider what is happening, and when we consider change. It probably means choosing legislators on their climate change policy. It may mean examining our current understanding, to see if our assumptions make us part of the solution, or part of the problem. All of these are necessary; we need enough people to address all aspects of climate change solutions.

Residents of Manhattan use less energy than the typical American.
Residents of Manhattan use less energy than most Americans.

It will be difficult to reduce the risk of catastrophic climate change mid-century to a relatively low level—many policy proposals including the Stern report and Al Gore’s solutions may have a high probability of reaching 2ºC. See, for example, Baer and Mastrandrea’s High Stakes: Designing emissions pathways to reduce the risk of dangerous climate change,

The 2°C target, long advocated by European governments, businesses and civil society groups alike, is far from perfect. Severe impacts and feedback mechanisms that amplify the problem are already occurring at relatively low temperature increases. Nevertheless, the importance of the 2°C objective cannot be overstated. Beyond that threshold, the extent and magnitude of impacts are likely to increase in a way that may widely be considered as being dangerous, and in some cases irreversible.

The likely impacts for a rise of between 2 and 3°C include an increase in the number of people affected by water scarcity to two billion; agricultural losses extending to the world’s largest exporters of food; the loss of the world’s most bio-diverse ecosystems including most of the coral reefs, and irreversible damage to the Amazon rainforest, which could result in its collapse. Particularly worrying is the likely transformation of the planet’s soils and forests into a net source of carbon, causing an additional 2 to 3°C rise in temperature, and an increase in the likelihood of other abrupt changes in climate, such as the slowing-down of the Gulf Stream and the loss of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, which together would raise sea levels by 12 metres (40 feet)…

However, the message should already be clear: while very rapid reductions can greatly reduce the level of risk, it nevertheless remains the case that, even with the strictest measures we model [peak greenhouse gas emissions in 2010, five per cent maximum annual rate of decline, 81 per cent reduction below 1990 levels by 2050], the risk of exceeding the 2ºC threshold is in the order of 10 to 25 per cent.

Steep and immediate decreases will require all possible solutions, including voluntary behavior change.

Some propose that we focus on part of the solutions today, and more of the solutions tomorrow. This doesn’t make sense for several reasons:

• The faster we reduce GHG emissions, the greater the chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change.
• The faster we reduce GHG emissions, the fewer problems climate change will create.
• Hopes about how much cushion we have, how rapidly we will implement solutions, and the effectiveness of solutions may be too optimistic (or they may be too pessimistic, we can only hope that this is the case!)
• Investing in tomorrow’s solutions today will reduce costs and increase effectiveness tomorrow.
• Fossil fuels, the largest cause of climate change, kill hundreds of thousands of people worldwide each year in direct pollution, and do commensurate damage to agriculture and other plants and animals (though switching from gasoline to ethanol with today’s technology, and building a coal power plant to do so, may not make sense): reducing fossil fuel use has collateral benefits.

Photovoltaic (Solar) System
Photovoltaic (Solar) System

The US can and should make good policy today, including carbon taxes or carbon cap and trade—people in business are complaining that business decisions are hard when everyone knows policies will change, but not how. The US can and should invest substantially more money and research in greater efficiency (doing the same with less), wind and solar power, and improving other (and finding new) technologies. But these will not solve our problems; they are necessary but not sufficient. Efficiency goals are to increase the current yearly improvement from 1% to 2%. Our population is growing by more than 1%/year, so a 2% improvement will reduce our energy needs, but not immediately. Solar power, if it continues to increase at the rate of 35% per year, will supply less than 0.5% of US electricity in 2015. The use of wind power is also growing rapidly (though not as much as in some countries), but integrating wind into the grid is not simple. Canada, for example, is reducing its plans for wind power: Alberta will add 900 MW rather than 3,000 MW in windmill capacity.

It is starting to look as though wind cannot meet more than a fraction of our energy demand even if other issues with the technology, like esthetics and wildlife impacts, are ignored. The problem, as engineers skeptical of wind power have been yelping for decades, is that power usage and production constantly have to be balanced in an electrical grid. Adding too much unstable, unpredictable power to the system creates a risk of failure and cascading blackouts. In fact, the EU is investigating the possible role of Germany’s heavy wind-dependence in causing a Nov. 6 blackout that hit 10 million Europeans.

Windmills in Southern Alberta
Windmills in Southern Alberta

If we wait to build more nuclear power plants, we will necessarily build coal power plants. Coal power kills with direct pollution—many more die every year in the US from coal particulates alone than will eventually die from Chernobyl, not counting the health, agriculture, and environmental effects of heavy metals, ozone, and other pollutants. Many more Americans die from working in the coal industry every year than workers died from Chernobyl. Coal is the most intense greenhouse gas emitting fuel.

Several people told me that their main concerns about nuclear power were a range of issues from terrorism to proliferation. I’ve completed a series: introduction, making a bomb, making a bomb from nuclear waste, terrorist targets, international treaties, governments with the bomb, and nuclear power and the weapons threat. A previous post looked at the safety of current western nuclear power plants (newer plants are expected to be safer).

Since Three Mile Island, few coal power plants have been built, and many orders were canceled. The US had built too many power plants, assuming that the rate of increase in electricity use would remain several per cent/year. Additionally, as nuclear power plants were improved after TMI (there was significant room for improvement), the amount of unplanned maintenance decreased, and nuclear power’s contribution to electricity production increased.

But now almost all US coal power plants are many decades old, and the reserve capacity has been brought into use as both population and per capita consumption continue to rise.

The choice today for the bulk of new power plants is between nuclear and coal power. Mid-century, there will hopefully be more choices, but today nuclear and coal are the biggies. Several utilities are considering nuclear power plants, and Kansas and Texas utilities are planning coal power plants.

I began my own process believing that there were certain solutions that should be promoted first, that it was OK for me to change my behavior but that I shouldn’t ask it of others (I still pretty much don’t). But we as a society have been dawdling too long. We have fewer choices available today than we had last month, less time to make up our mind today than a week ago.

Also in this series
Part 1 Nuclear Bombs, Nuclear Energy, and Terrorism
Part 2 Today’s Bombs, Making a Bomb
Part 3 Making Bombs from Nuclear Waste
Part 4 Terrorist Targets
Part 5 Nuclear Proliferation—International Treaties
Part 6 The Bomb Spreads
Part 7 Nuclear Power and the Weapons Threat

2 Responses to “Wrapup on Nuclear Power Series”

  1. catharine Lucas says:

    You point out that, because of limiting factors with wind and solar:

    “The choice today for the bulk of new power plants is between nuclear and coal power. Mid-century, there will hopefully be more choices, but today nuclear and coal are the biggies. Several utilities are considering nuclear power plants, and Kansas and Texas utilities are planning coal power plants.”

    You’ve given me links to your series on nuclear energy, that seems to promise answers to some of the biggest arguments I keep hearing against it — Your last posting on black lung disease seems to suggest that the number of deaths from coal mining is likely to stay high (in the thousands every year) — certainly higher than deaths from uranium mining, which you suggest are very few (“several” or “several tens” last year.) I hope you will offer comparable statistics on numbers of on-going deaths in the nuclear energy industry that include results from nuclear waste —

    There are so many more coal plants than nuclear plants that raw numbers are misleading — I’ll look for a posting on comparable percentages of workers harmed in the two industries, as well as comparable ratios of people made sick in the vicinity of, say, one coal plant compared to one nuclear plant with comparable energy output. Maybe those stats are out there! That would make a difference to me, if the number of deaths attributed to each energy source differs by such a great order of magnitude as you suggest.

    Thanks for the good information!

  2. This is a very useful summary of your thoughts! I have already quoted from it — with a link to the source — on my latest posting to my own journal, and I do intend to talk with Friends I know about it.

    Two of my own major concerns about nuclear power don’t seem to be touched on in this summary — the rather staggering costs and difficulties of dealing with the radioactive portions of a decommissioned plant; and the eternal unreliability of human builders and operators, no matter how safely a plant can theoretically be built. But you can’t have everything in such a compact summary!