The Scientific Activist (Archives)


Mar 8, 2006

Finding a Gray Approach to Cutting Greenhouse Emissions

As the description of The Scientific Activist states, the truth isn’t always black or white. However, you wouldn’t gather that from the struggle over efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the United Kingdom, where there seem to be two mutually exclusive options: fully embrace nuclear power, or focus only on alternative fuel sources and energy efficiency. This is, of course, a false dichotomy, but some UK officials apparently think otherwise, as Tuesday’s Independent reports:
Tony Blair's backing for nuclear power suffered a blow yesterday when the Government's own advisory body on sustainable development came down firmly against the building of a new generation of reactors.

Despite the Prime Minister's well-known support for the nuclear industry, the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) concluded that a new nuclear programme was not the answer to the twin challenges of climate change and security of supply. In a hard-hitting report, the 15-strong Commission identified five "major disadvantages" to nuclear power.

The five objections are waste, cost, inflexibility, security risks, and distractions from energy efficiency.
A new nuclear power programme would send out a signal that a major technological fix is all that is required, says the report, and hurt efforts to encourage energy efficiency. This has largely been the approach of the Bush administration to climate change. Environmentalists would contend that this is a dangerous delusion, and that technical fixes such as nuclear power do nothing about the long-term problem. Only changing the energy system profoundly will make a real difference.

While the report is on the right track in that a long-term solution to global warming will surely require new and innovative solutions, we are unlikely to find a panacea anytime soon. Decreasing greenhouse gas emissions by any means, then, should be seen as a positive step. The report even notes that doubling the UK’s use of nuclear power alone would lower carbon emissions to 8% below 1990 levels. Although other truly clean energy sources have the potential to reduce emissions much further, this decrease would still be significant.

The commission reports that embracing nuclear power would distract the country from what should be the real focus: developing renewable energy sources combined with cutting energy use. Although this green strategy will be essential to truly combat global warming, it is unclear why nuclear power should be considered mutually exclusive with it. In fact, a truly comprehensive strategy would include both. The stakes are high, though, with the future of our planet in the balance. As global carbon dioxide levels continue to skyrocket, betting that an alleged loss of support for other solutions would cancel out gains from nuclear power is a dangerous gamble.


  • I just went through a roller coaster of opinion flip-flopping a few weeks ago working on a policy paper as a Democrat advocating nuclear power for my national security seminar. I have quite a vocal body of activists in my community shouting in one ear about the evils of nuclear power, and to be sure the waste issue is daunting, but as an engineer, I just can't be more afraid of nuclear power than I am of the polar ice caps melting. Metallurgy and radiation I can understand; chaotic climatological forces I don't, but those satellite photos of the polar ice recession are rather chilling (har har). My research partner and I came to a similar conclusion: while nuclear's long-term prospects are gloomy, barring a major technological breakthrough in waste management, it's probably the best bet for reducing carbon emissions for the next century until we can bring better renewable sources to fruition.

    Most frustrating to me was the way the president once again blathers about hydrogen powered cars in the State of the Union, but then the budget request goes ahead and asks for as much money for the Nuclear Hydrogen Initiative as it does for promoting healthy marriages. Good gravy. There's commitment for ya.

    By Blogger Shelby, at Wed Mar 08, 01:54:00 PM  

  • Nuclear power has traditionally had a bad press in the UK so it looks like the Government is running a PR campaign to try and sway public opinion.

    Unfortunately it seems to be at the expense of any other coherent discussion on how our energy policy should develop, eg. Nuclear requires a commitment of billions of pounds now when the stations won't be operational for maybe 10-15 years, but how does that compare with funding 10 years worth of research into renewables? How should we split the funds? Would we be better off spending some of the money on improving public transport and reducing its cost to reduce transport emissions?

    What will probably happen: The current/next Governments will spent a few billion listening to consultants and big business, and there'll be a token increase in renewables research which will be capped off by a few new airports and roads.

    By Blogger sas, at Wed Mar 08, 03:30:00 PM  

  • While I think that nuclear or not is a far less important question than doing nothing, or getting on with something to reduce emissions, I still think that fission is a last resort. All the figures mooted in favour exclude the cost of de-commisioning and spent fuel disposal, which are two of the trickiest and most costly areas in the whole operation.

    Fusion is of course a completely matter, but while ITER is at least getting built now, no-one's really managed to get it significantly on the political radar since the whole cold-fusion debacle, so perhaps fission is necessary in the interim.

    By Anonymous Philip Wills, at Wed Mar 08, 04:25:00 PM  

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