Nuclear fissions green movement
- 16 March 2012
- From the section Science & Environment
What I'm sure some will find an entertaining row and others an annoying one has broken out this week between scions of the green movement over nuclear power.
It's largely a UK-focused argument, but many of the points being raised are cogent for the rest of the world too.
I've been told that to a certain extent it's my fault by publishing, on Monday, an article relating to a letter that four former Friends of the Earth UK directors including Tony Juniper sent to UK Prime Minister David Cameron.
Their top line was that Mr Cameron's nuclear keenness is effectively putting Britain's climate and energy policies in the hands of French companies - and, as those companies are largely owned by the French government, putting those policies under the control of Nicolas Sarkozy.
Their deeper arguments concern the economics of nuclear power, and they're more important in the long run than a bit of national stirring.
Battle was joined later in the week by a group of five self-styled "writers and thinkers" including George Monbiot, with whom many years ago, when a sound engineer, I nearly went to make a documentary on pygmies in West Africa, and who (more pertinently) was last year judged by his peers to be the most influential environment journalist in the UK.
Their principal argument is a balance of risks: climate change is more serious than the various risks associated with nuclear power, they judge, ergo the UK and many other places must forge ahead.
If the reasons why the dispute is important were not evident enough, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) conveniently spelled them out for us this week in its Environmental Outlook to 2050:
"World energy demand in 2050 will be 80% higher... and still 85% reliant on fossil fuel-based energy. This could lead to a 50% increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions globally and worsening air pollution," it says.
"The atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases could reach 685 parts per million (ppm) CO2-equivalents by 2050. As a result, global average temperature is projected to be 3-6C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century."
Though the temperature rise figures are the most far-reaching, the number that should probably make both camps in the green battle do a bit of head-scratching is the one for energy.
What the OECD is basically saying is that all non-fossil fuel technologies are set to stay so unattractive for the next 38 years that for all the talk of costs coming down, of side-benefits such as cleaner air, of super-grids and devolved generation, humanity will still be burning coal, oil and gas for five-sixths of its energy needs.
The OECD makes clear that this fossil-fuelled future isn't immutable, and indeed puts forward a raft of options for changing it - in particular, establishing a global carbon price and slashing fossil fuel subsidies.
You can broadly translate this prescription into "having enough political will" - and the history of the last couple of decades, in a range of arenas including the G20 and the UN climate convention, shows that assuming this will materialise is a strategy likely to result in disappointment.
So if either the pro-nuke or anti-nuke greens are to see the future they both want - one powered by copious amounts of low-carbon energy - the obvious strategy is to map out a route for change that doesn't involve waiting for the Godot of political will.
At root, the trick must be to make alternatives more attractive than fossils in whatever ways will work.
Some governments are helping that process along, such as Germany's feed-in tariffs that have made such a difference to the solar photovoltaics industry.
But it may be that if low-carbon technologies can't stand on their own financial feet, they'll never get much beyond the 15% share that the OECD predicts under business as usual.
That being so, perhaps the forces of General Juniper and Marshall Monbiot could concentrate some thinking power on the key question of how their respective causes can be made appealing enough that everybody joins up willingly.
As the pro-nuclear camp in this arena is also pro-renewables and pro-efficiency, a lot of the questions are ones they share.
On efficiency - often described as a "low-hanging fruit" despite appearing pretty resistant to plucking - one enduring question is how to persuade people simply to use less.
Another is how to combat the issue that while fridges and cars and light bulbs are becoming more frugal, people are buying more of them.
A "one fridge per household" policy would be likely to prove as popular as China's "one child per family" - so how else can it be done?
On renewables, the seemingly eternal questions are cost - on just about everything bar hydro, geothermal and (increasingly) onshore wind - and intermittency.
The second is a minefield because the technical responses make a rich mix, ranging from "it's not a problem because if you have enough wind turbines they compensate for each other" to "you need a fossil fuel power station on standby for every wind farm".
The facts lie somewhere in the middle. Next to them is a big fat bin labelled "energy storage", and it's virtually empty.
And I heard an interesting comment the other week from someone connected with grid issues - that the engineers like to have a bit of wind power in the mix because wind turbines are the easiest thing by far to switch on and off.
How widely that view is shared, I don't know; but on the opinion-forming side at least there's clearly a deal of work to be done to convince people that renewables can easily provide baseload power when wind turbines demonstrably stop, the Sun demonstrably stops shining, tides demonstrably come and go and very few countries have anything in the way of a storage capacity.
On the nuclear side, the cost issues are complex partially because the timelines are so long.
But transparency there should surely be. A supposedly open market that is rigged so far in one direction is no longer open; let us be honest about these things.
And although pro-nuclear voices (industry and greens) argue, correctly, that Fukushima didn't kill anyone and that the dangers of radioactivity are often exaggerated, that doesn't stop people not wanting to live in a potential fallout zone.
It doesn't wash away the radioactive caesium nor the fear of it; nor does it put the countless billions of dollars that the Fukushima incident cost back into Japanese national coffers.
Clearly, if the idea of a 3C or 4C or even 6C world scares you, these are the kind of hard questions you have to answer about the technology of your choice.
And they are hard; if they were easy, they wouldn't be questions anymore, and green would no longer be going against green in the battle of the energy opinionosphere.