mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

mark


Nuclear energy can’t solve global warming

During a public lecture in San Francisco last month, Jared Diamond, the
mega-selling author of “Guns, Germs and Steel,” became the latest and
most prominent environmental intellectual to endorse nuclear power as a
necessary response to global warming.

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Addressing an overflow crowd at the Cowell Theater about why some
societies fail and others don’t (the theme of his most recent book,
“Collapse”), Diamond three times cited global warming as a threat that
could ruin modern civilization. During the question period, he was asked
if he agreed with Stewart Brand, whose Long Now Foundation was
sponsoring the lecture, that global warming posed such a grave threat
that humanity had to embrace nuclear power.

It was a delicate moment, because Brand, the former editor of the Whole
Earth Catalogue, was on stage with Diamond.

“I did not know that Stewart Brand said that,” Diamond replied. “But
yes, to deal with our energy problems we need everything available to
us, including nuclear power.” Nuclear, he added, should simply be “done
carefully, like they do in France, where there have been no accidents.”

“I did not expect that answer,” Brand said.

Neither, it seemed, did much of the audience. Overwhelmingly white and
affluent, they had nodded reverentially at everything Diamond said —
about the self-destructiveness of ancient civilizations that leveled
forests (Easter Island) or eroded soils (the Mayans) in pursuit of
short-term gain, about the need for America to rethink its “core value”
of consumerism if it hopes to survive. They had applauded when Diamond
mocked President Bush’s see-no-evil approach to environmental
protection. Yet here was Diamond urging an expansion of nuclear power, a
technology most environmentalists regard as irredeemably evil.

“Deal with it,” crowed Brand as the crowd sat in stunned silence. It was
smug but useful advice, for this debate is bound to intensify. The Bush
administration and much of Congress are pushing hard to revive the
nuclear industry, which provides 20 percent of America’s electricity but
has not had a new reactor order since 1974.

In June, Bush became the first president in 26 years to visit a nuclear
power plant, the Calvert Cliffs facility near Washington, D.C., where he
endorsed nuclear as an “environmentally friendly” energy source. His
administration’s 2006 budget increased nuclear power funding by 5
percent, even as it cut overall energy funding.

Congress followed suit in its recent energy bill. Besides giving the
nuclear industry $7 billion in research-and-development subsidies and
$7.3 billion in tax breaks, the bill contains unlimited taxpayer-backed
loan guarantees and insurance protection for new reactors.

Diamond may not agree with Bush about much, but their shared support for
nuclear power hints at the other factor that will drive the future
debate. As the United States experiences more killer heat waves and
out-of season hurricanes like this summer’s, more Americans will
recognize what the rest of the world has long accepted: Global warming
is here, it will get worse, and the costs will be enormous. As we cast
about for alternatives to the carbon- based fuels that are cooking our
planet, nuclear power seems to be an obvious answer.

As Vice President Dick Cheney observed in 2001 when defending the
administration’s energy plan, which urged constructing hundreds of new
nuclear plants, fission produces no greenhouse gases.

But the truth is that nuclear power is a weakling in combatting global
warming. Investing in a nuclear revival would make our global warming
predicament worse, not better. The reasons have little to do with
nuclear safety, which may be why environmentalists tend to overlook
them.

Environmentalists center their critique on safety concerns: Nuclear
reactors can suffer meltdowns from malfunctions or terrorist attacks;
radioactivity is released in all phases of the nuclear production cycle
from uranium mining through fission; the problem of waste disposal still
hasn’t been solved; civilian nuclear programs can spur weapons
proliferation. But absent a Chernobyl-scale disaster, such arguments may
not prove to be decisive.

In an atmosphere of desperation over how to keep our TVs, computers and
refrigerators humming in a globally warmed world, economic
considerations will dominate. This is especially so when dissident
greens like Diamond and Brand say nuclear safety is a solvable problem.
Diamond is correct that France has generated most of its electricity
from nuclear power for decades without a major mishap.

Dissident greens concede there are risks to nuclear power. But those
risks, they say, are less than the alternatives. Coal, the world’s major
electricity source, kills thousands of people a year right now through
air pollution and mining accidents. Coal is also the main driver of
climate change, which is on track to kill millions of people in the 21st
century — not in the sudden bang of radioactive explosions but the
gradual whimper of environmental collapse as soaring temperatures and
rising seas submerge cities, parch farmlands, crash ecosystems and
spread disease and chaos worldwide.

Fear of such an apocalypse led the British scientist James Lovelock to
become the first prominent environmentalist to endorse nuclear power as
a global warming remedy, in 2003. Patrick Moore, a co-founder of
Greenpeace (who left the group a decade ago), soon echoed Lovelock’s
apostasy, as did Hugh Montefiore, a board member of Friends of the
Earth, UK. All three were criticized by fellow greens. Likewise in the
United States, the movement’s major organizations remain adamantly
anti-nuclear. But environmentalists on both sides of this argument are
overlooking the strongest objection to nuclear power, even as the
nuclear industry hopes no one notices it. The objection is rooted in
energy economics, hence the oversight.

As energy economist Joseph Romm argued in a blog exchange with Brand,
“It is too often the case that experts on the environment think they
know a lot about energy, but they don’t.”

The case against nuclear power as a global warming remedy begins with
the fact that nuclear-generated electricity is very expensive. Despite
more than $150 billion in federal subsides over the past 60 years
(roughly 30 times more than solar, wind and other renewable energy
sources have received), nuclear power costs substantially more than
electricity made from wind, coal, oil or natural gas. This is mainly due
to the cost of borrowing money for the decade or more it usually takes
to get a nuclear plant up and running.

Remarkably, this inconvenient fact does not deter industry officials
from boasting that nuclear is the cheapest power available. Their trick
is to count only the cost of operating the plants, not of constructing
them. By that logic, a Rolls-Royce is cheap to drive because the
gasoline but not the sticker price matters. The marketplace, however,
sees through such blarney. As Amory Lovins, the soft energy guru who
directs the Rocky Mountain Institute, a Colorado think tank that advises
corporations and governments on energy use, points out, “Nowhere (in the
world) do market-driven utilities buy, or private investors finance, new
nuclear plants.” Only large government intervention keeps the nuclear
option alive.

A second strike against nuclear is that it produces only electricity,
but electricity amounts to only one third of America’s total energy use
(and less of the world’s). Nuclear power thus addresses only a small
fraction of the global warming problem, and has no effect whatsoever on
two of the largest sources of carbon emissions: driving vehicles and
heating buildings.

The upshot is that nuclear power is seven times less cost-effective at
displacing carbon than the cheapest, fastest alternative — energy
efficiency, according to studies by the Rocky Mountain Institute. For
example, a nuclear power plant typically costs at least $2 billion. If
that $2 billion were instead spent to insulate drafty buildings,
purchase hybrid cars or install super-efficient lightbulbs and clothes
dryers, it would make unnecessary seven times more carbon consumption
than the nuclear power plant would. In short, energy efficiency offers a
much bigger bang for the buck. In a world of limited capital, investing
in nuclear power would divert money away from better responses to global
warming, thus slowing the world’s withdrawal from carbon fuels at a time
when speed is essential.

Mainstream environmentalists do argue that energy efficiency, solar,
wind and other renewable fuels are better weapons against global warming
than nuclear is. But they will fare better if they go a step further and
point out that embracing nuclear is not just unnecessary but a step
backward.

Even so, a tough fight lies ahead. As the energy bill illustrates, the
nuclear industry has many friends in high places. And the case for
nuclear power will strengthen if its economics improve. The key to lower
nuclear costs is to reduce construction times, which could happen if the
industry at last adopts standardized reactors and the Bush or a future
administration streamlines the plant approval process.

On a more fundamental level, any defeat of nuclear power is likely to be
short-lived if America does not confront what Diamond calls its core
value of consumerism. After all, there is only so much waste to wring
out of any given economy. Eventually, if human population and appetites
keep growing — and some growth is inevitable, given the ambitions of
China and other newly industrializing nations — new sources of energy
must be exploited. At that point, nuclear power and other undesirable
alternatives such as shale oil will be waiting. (For the record, that is
Brand’s rejoinder: future demand growth makes nuclear, as well as
efficiency and renewables, necessary. Diamond did not respond to an
e-mail request for comment.)

Environmentalists have been afraid to talk honestly about consumerism
ever since a cardigan-clad Jimmy Carter was ridiculed for urging people
to turn down their thermostats in the 1979 oil crisis. But now that our
species, through our carbon-fueled pursuit of the good life, has turned
up the planet’s thermostat to ominous levels, it’s time to break the
silence. We don’t have to freeze in the dark, but neither can we keep
consuming as if there’s no tomorrow.

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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.

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