I do not support Greenpeace. That organization has been really pushing itself near the U. of Texas campus lately, and I do not like it. If the environmental situation is as bad as some would have us believe (have a look at what the UK’s top science advisor has to say) then we are on the deck of the Titanic, and saving the whales amounts to polishing the deck chairs. What bothers me about Greenpeace is not that they are polishing the deck chairs. What bothers me is that they are loudly screaming “Hey, quit fixing those life rafts! Get over here and polish these chairs! Can’t you see the ship is sinking?”
Stewart Brand is a deeply committed environmentalist. He has advocated careful ecological stewardship for over 50 years. He wrote the original Whole Earth Catalog that inspired the hippies in the 1960’s and worked for California Governor Jerry Brown and helped establish that state as an leader in environmental conservation. He is not a secret agent for “The Man,” “The Establishment,” or the PTB. He advocates nuclear power.
Why? Because nuclear power emits no greenhouse gas. Nuclear power can be scaled up immediately. Consider: if transportation fuel moves to electricity, that roughly doubles electrical demand. If the developing world moves to European standards of living, that (conservatively) quintuples electricity demand. If humanity is to move out of poverty without cheap oil (and don’t kid yourself, the era of cheap oil is over), we are looking at a total increase in electrical demand of roughly ten times over the next century. Right now, roughly 20% of electricity is nuclear, less than 2% is solar and wind. If we were to completely rid ourselves of fossil fuel, we would need to scale Nuclear up by a factor of 50 or wind/solar by a factor of 500 over the next century. Certainly, we should scale solar and wind as much as possible, but a factor of 500 is simply unrealistic. We need to double our nuclear generating capacity every 10 years or condemn ourselves to catastrophic climate change and extreme, widespread poverty.
What about nuclear waste? What about coal waste! From the NYT: “A coal ash spill in eastern Tennessee that experts were already calling the largest environmental disaster of its kind in the United States is more than three times as large as initially estimated… Officials at the [Tennessee Valley Authority]… released the results of an aerial survey that showed the actual amount was 5.4 million cubic yards [of wet coal ash], or enough to flood more than 3,000 acres one foot deep.” Moving away from coal is a great idea – and the only realistic alternative is nuclear. Natural gas is not perfectly safe. Nothing is. A typical 1 GW power plant generates as much energy in a day as Fat Man released over Hiroshima. This carries inherent risk no matter what the fuel.
Furthermore, nuclear waste is more a political problem than a technical problem. In the United States, we are committed to a once-through fuel cycle for political reasons. Most of the “waste” is un-burned fuel. It can be processed and fed back into a reactor to make more electricity. We have tons and tons of “waste” that can just as easily be re-labeled as “fuel.” Once burned down completely, this waste is only a problem for a few hundred years (not thousands or millions) and takes up vastly less space. Why don’t we do this?
Greenpeace and short-sighted fools like them have made it politically and economically impossible. The paranoia about nuclear technology is way outside of reality. A coal plant renders 3,000 acres uninhabitable and contaminated with heavy metals, and it’s barely a by-line. A nuclear plant has a glitch and it becomes headline news. Thanks Greenpeace.
From their own mouths: “The general argument that the fact that [a nuclear plant] has operated safely for a finite period of time proves that the safety level is adequate is just not statistically right…” By this premise, it is impossible to measure the safety of anything, ever. And because safety can not be measured, it can not be assured. Because perfect safety can not be assured, “The United States can avoid the next nuclear accident by phasing out the remaining 103 commercial nuclear reactors… Coupled with an increase in energy efficiency, this increase in renewable resources would produce enough electricity to supplant every nuclear reactor currently operating in the United States.”
Remember my calculation above? Yes, we could scale renewables by 10 times and replace nuclear… leaving the other 80% to be generated from fossil fuels. But that also assumes no growth. With growth of electricity demand (due to plug-in hybrids, perhaps?) that will just be moving from gasoline to coal. No, what we need is more nuclear, more nuclear research.