James Lovelock, the British scientist best known for his co-authorship of the Gaia hypothesis, has turned heads recently with searing essays exhorting environmentalists to drop their opposition to nuclear power. An odd opinion for an environmental icon? Not from Lovelock's perspective.
James Lovelock, the British scientist best known for his co-authorship of the Gaia hypothesis, has turned heads recently with searing essays exhorting environmentalists to drop their opposition to nuclear power. An odd opinion for an environmental icon? Not from Lovelock's perspective. An atmospheric chemist by trade, Lovelock is scared to death at the prospect of global climate change caused by the combustion of carbon fuels. Nuclear power plants release no carbon into the atmosphere and so, says Lovelock, they are the only answer to the looming climate threat.
Lovelock is right to be worried. Our society's carbon addiction will seriously alter life on Earth, and soon, and not in a good way. It's not unlikely that sea levels will rise by seven meters within a couple centuries, forcing abandonment of coastal cities; rising temperatures will consign whole biomes to extinction. No more Amazon rainforest; no more boreal forest.
But Lovelock's call for a nuclear renaissance is based on mushy, ill-informed thinking.
For one thing, nuclear power is not climate-neutral. Uranium fuel reprocessing plants are responsible for a large fraction of atmospheric chloroflurocarbons (CFCs), chemicals best known as ozone-depleters but which are also powerful greenhouse gases.
But the biggest problem with Lovelock's nuclear boosterism is that it is based on the worst sort of industry propaganda. In an article published by the UK paper The Independent in May 2004, Lovelock writes:
"Opposition to nuclear energy is based on irrational fear fed by Hollywood-style fiction, the Green lobbies and the media. These fears are unjustified, and nuclear energy from its start in 1952 has proved to be the safest of all energy sources. "
Coal power is horribly dangerous to the environment, as is oil. But point out a coal-fired power plant that has rendered an area the size of Ukraine essentially uninhabitable, as did Chernobyl.
Even the so-called "safe" Generation Four nuclear reactors now in development buy their allegedly greater margin of reactor safety at the cost of hugely increased amounts of nuclear waste. In the US, desert preservation activists have fought pitched battles to prevent the opening of one radioactive waste dump after another, from Ward Valley to Yucca Mountain to the proposed surface dump on the Goshute Indian reservation. What Lovelock advocates is, essentially, killing specific ecosystems with radioactive waste in order to save unspecified ones.
And the worst part of it is that even if nuclear were safe, new plants would be unlikely to produce energy for another ten or fifteen years - unless Lovelock also advocates gutting environmental and worker safety regulations. The earth cannot handle ten or fifteen years of continued carbon emissions without serious resulting damage.
Oddly enough, there are technical fixes readily available that could replace TODAY the same amount of energy that would be produced ten years from now if industrial societies went all out to build nuclear power plants. Here's just one: the compact fluorescent light bulb. Switching two thirds of the incandescent bulbs used in the US alone - which could be done in less than a year, given the social will - would reduce energy consumption by seven gigawatts. That's fourteen big coal-fired plants. Incentives to replace wasteful appliances, weatherize homes, use mass transit and find other ways to reduce our profligate energy use could provide immediate benefits, unlike Lovelock's radioactive pie in the sky.
Environmental writer Chris Clarke is Publications Director at Earth Island Institute. He has written extensively on politics and the natural world. His most recent writings are available at his website (http://www.faultline.org/place/pinolecreek). He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Source: An ENN Commentary