Greenies can be pro-nuclear

7 10 2013

happy-nuclear-powerPublished today on The Conversation by Ben Heard & me.

The IPCC fifth climate change report lays out a carbon budget that we must follow if we’re to keep the world under a temperature rise of 2C over pre-industrial levels – the widely accepted level above which lies catastrophic climate change. According to the report, we can “spend” 1,000 gigatonnes (Gt) CO2 in total. We’ve already spent more than half, and at the current rates we are on track to blow the other half in 30 years.

Not only is human society at risk from this unprecedented rate of warming, the ecosystems on which all life is based are also seriously under threat.

So it’s a timely moment to look at how we could avoid burning through our carbon budget, including controversial options such as nuclear energy.

This week marks the beginning of the Australian tour of a new documentary, Pandora’s Promise. The film aims to dispel myths and spark a debate about whether you can be simultaneously “pro-nuclear” and an environmentalist.

Renewable failure

Even with the best of intentions to reduce the magnitude of future climate disruption, decades of focus on carbon pricing and the promotion of renewable energy sources cannot hide our failure to provide scalable, large, reliable sources of clean (low or emissions-free) energy.

Today, wind turbines and solar panels combined deliver only around 3% of total electricity consumption in Australia, with coal providing 70 %, and gas another 20 %. The contribution of renewable energy has decreased over time – in 1960 renewable energy contributed 19% (largely thanks to hydropower) and coal 76 %. Total renewable energy contribution today, including hydro, has shrunk to 9%.

This is thanks, in substantial part, to the mismatch between dispersed, intermittent wind and solar technologies and the large, continuous fossil fuels we need to replace.

These sobering statistics are in no way an argument to abandon renewables, but they are evidence of a serious failure to date and point to near-certain failure in future. Passing the blame to media, fossil fuel interests or other favoured scapegoats makes us feel good and is no doubt deserved. But we must also cease avoiding uncomfortable truths about the inadequacy of the solutions we have advocated to date.

Continued exclusion of nuclear will prove costly. It will bring high system costs to ensure reliability of supply from very high levels of intermittent generation. It places large bets on the success of technologies that are commercially nascent and very expensive (such as solar thermal with storage), encountering serious engineering challenges to bring to market at scale (such as hot dry rock geothermal or carbon-capture and storage) or simply a sustainability disaster when scaled up (like giant, brand new biomass industries).

Instead, we’ll probably be left with a large coal and gas sector, and a large bill for carbon offsets if we want to do anything about it.

In an earlier study, we compared the replacement of two small coal plants with a reference nuclear solution and a reference renewable solution (the latter as proposed by advocacy group Repower Pt Augusta). The nuclear solution exceeded the target delivery of electricity with full reliability for about half the capital cost, with electricity at around half the price, with a longer lifespan and far less consumption of materials. The renewable solution failed in the reliability criteria.

Those of us presuming to represent the sustainability voice must therefore ask ourselves: what is the benefit of excluding nuclear in favour of these high-stakes pathways?

What would a nuclear Australia look like?

Had Australia deployed a modest nuclear program starting in 1965, to build slowly to around 20 % of electricity provided (as done in the USA), over 876 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-e) would have been avoided to this day. Had Australia been an early adopter, rapid nuclear deployment in partnership with renewables could have formed a comprehensive response to climate change in our energy sector.

In the OECD, three (yes, only three) countries have achieved success in all but eliminating fossil fuels from electricity supply. They are France, Sweden and Switzerland (Finland will soon join them). All did it by embracing nuclear power generation. These nations deliver reliable, large-scale electricity supply with less than 1/10th the emissions of Australia. France in particular delivers the cheapest electricity in Western Europe, and is the second-highest net exporter of electricity in the world. Eliminating fossil fuels did not cost the earth after all.

See the table below for a comparison. All data are from the International Energy Agency 2012 except the Australian price, which is from the Australian Energy Market Commission 2013. Prices have been adjusted for purchasing power parity based on OECD August 2013.

Nation Emissions(g CO2-e/kWh) % nuclear Residential price(US$/MWh) Industry price(US$/MWh)
Australia 847 0 292
Denmark 385 0 454 128
Germany 468 23 285 127
Switzerland 27 40 264 156
Sweden 22 40.5 246 103
France 77 76 159 104

Nuclear facts and fictions

So why haven’t more countries invested in nuclear power? Two of the main arguments against its large-scale deployment stop most governments in their tracks: perceptions of high risk for human safety and environmental degradation.

But many of these arguments against nuclear aren’t supported by facts.

An examination of human fatality records paints an entirely different picture to the one most antagonists have in mind.

Even the worst-ever unintended release of radiation from an archaic nuclear facility with no form of containment – Chernobyl – killed no more than 28 people immediately following the explosion and fire, and probably around 15 more from latent thyroid cancer.

In contrast, coal-fired power generation in particular is a relatively nasty killer. Indeed, outdoor air pollution is a major contributor to about 1.3 million deaths every year. Compared to nuclear then, coal alone accounts for about 1000 times the aggregate air-pollution damages worldwide. This means that nuclear power generation has saved an estimated 1.84 million lives by the reduction of air pollution and because it causes far fewer accidents and long-term health problems.

Of course, nuclear power generation isn’t without risk, as the infamous Chernobyl and Fukushima incidents clearly demonstrate. Such accidents have precipitated major and sustained exodus of humans from large areas. They can also result in some putative mutations in wildlife and kill forest patches.

But do the benefits of such incidents outweigh their damages? Worldwide, the single-most important driver of species extinctions is land “development” for agriculture, urbanisation and resource extraction. When people leave areas contaminated by nuclear accidents, there has also been a concomitantreturn of native fauna.

Indeed, the Chernobyl exclusion zone now hosts some of the only healthy populations of wolf, boar, endangered Eurasian horse, birds of prey, bear and other species in the region. Another little known fact is that Chernobyl also has a population of former residents of healthy humans who defied the exclusion and returned home.

Even the well-publicised contaminated water leaks at Fukushima appear to be over-hyped, and nearly all fail to mention recent test results demonstrating that marine life in the area is mostly unaffected and wholly safe for human consumption.

It’s also essential to recall that the above comparisons between nuclear and fossil fuel generation of electricity in terms of their main environmental and health impacts are not really justified. These comparisons and their associated statistics are made between catastrophically broken (relatively rare) nuclear plants and fossil-fuel plants in perfect working order. It’s hardly a fair comparison.

When viewed logically, the normal default position of preferring fossil fuels over nuclear in the name of environmental benefits and human health is therefore clearly unjustified. It survives on the high-stakes assumption that non-hydro renewables, not nuclear, will replace fossil fuels. This position is completely contradicted by real-world evidence both in Australia and globally. We are not cutting off our noses to spite our faces. We are cutting our throats.

The film Pandora’s Promise outlines these logical fallacies with stunning clarity and, most impressively, a profound sensitivity to the good intentions underpinning much opposition to nuclear energy.

The film’s director, Robert Stone, will be joining audiences for post-screening question and answer forums as the film tours Australia. He offers these thoughts to Australians contemplating the technology:

To avoid taking an open-minded, second look at nuclear could prove to be a tragic victory of ideology over common sense.

It’s time to look again at this technology, to unravel its potential, to face squarely its failures, and to chart a course towards a clean energy future that’s not obscured by the ideologies and dogma of a bygone era.

We contend that it is especially timely for Australia’s environmental experts to cut themselves loose of the anti-nuclear movement, much as have the protagonists and director of this documentary. We must instead lead an evidence-based defence of environmental and human health by supporting the inclusion of nuclear energy in the task of eliminating fossil fuels.

Evidence shows that renewable energy cannot solve our carbon problem on its own. We need a major contribution from nuclear energy if we’re to move away from fossil fuels.

The national tour of Pandora’s Promise kicks off at the Classic Cinema, Elsternwick, on Tuesday October 8, before continuing the national tour in Adelaide. Director Robert Stone will be attending for post-screening audience Q&A. See Cinema Ventures for more information.



11 responses

5 04 2017
Not 100% renewable, but 0% carbon |

[…] familiar with this blog and our work on energy issues will not be surprised by my sincere support of nuclear power as the only realistic solution to climate change in the electricity (and possibly transport and […]


22 07 2014
Another 589 scientists speak out against Abbott’s war on the environment |

[…] has one of the world’s highest per capita greenhouse-gas emission rates in the world, and relies primarily on fossil fuels for its electricity generation, it still is a major contributor to global climate […]


12 05 2014
6 05 2014
Australian League of Environmental Organisations |

[…] I get too upset when the Australian Conservation Foundation doggedly refuses to accept the role nuclear power will play in effective climate change mitigation, just because their leader doesn’t like it. Within-organisation squabbling is even […]


17 03 2014
If biodiversity is so important, why is Europe not languishing? |

[…] to this, many European countries – of which France is the star – have invested heavily in nuclear power. The cheap, low-emissions energy produced has likely increased their carrying capacities for less […]


29 11 2013
King for a day – what conservation policies would you make? |

[…] would lift the ban on nuclear energy for electricity […]


19 11 2013

As an Austrian resident and researcher, I would like to give an additional point of view to this issue.
Reduction of the amount of energy used per capita is a very important aspect as for every kWh not consumed there is no need for producing it.
According to data from the World Bank
if Australia could bring down its consumption rate to European standards (e.g. Austria or Germany) it could save about one third(!) of the energy consumed.
Well, I think this is at least a point worth mentioning and considering.


18 10 2013

[…] Perché non troverete un biologo della conservazione in una manifestazione contro il nucleare. […]


12 10 2013
Leigh Bettenay

Thanks chaps. It is always good to see a mature and rational analysis of a subject that sadly does not get this approach often.


9 10 2013

Has echoes of the frenzied debates over rail safety whenever there is a train crash. Often these debates fail to take into account that while train crashes may be more spectacular, travel by train is (just about everywhere, I think) an order of magnitude safer than travel by car.

Alas one of the things that makes train crashes newsworthy is that they are comparatively rare. But because we take other risks every day, they are factored into our daily lives to the point where we do not notice them until too late.

Ecologists are not immune to such perception problems, or at least student ones are not, if the risk assessment forms for tropical fieldwork that I have seen are anything to go by: lots of consideration of tropical diseases and what to do if bitten or stung by a snake/spider/lion etc. and rather less space given over to road crashes.


8 10 2013
Boris Leroy

As a French resident and researcher, I would like to give an additional point of view to this issue.
There are many opacities around the nuclear sector, and as a result the statistics such as those presented here can be misleading. For example, the actual cost of energy in France is severely underestimated, because the nuclear sector is largely funded by taxes in France. One should also be aware of the costs of the whole life cycle of nuclear plants, from construction to disassembly. The disassembly issue is currently highly controversial in France, and the actual costs are unknown. The management of nuclear wastes is another major problem that has to be closely examined. The construction costs are always underestimated. For example, the new nuclear plant being constructed in France was initially sold at 3 000 M€. The current cost has raised to 8 500 M€, thus far exceeding the initial estimation. French people pay these costs through taxes; I doubt that these costs are taken into account in assessments of residential prices.
The costs of uranium extraction should also be exhaustively investigated. AREVA (the French nuclear society) has been condemned to pay for the death of a French employee, but the numerous Nigerian workers in AREVA extraction mines do not benefit from such actions. If AREVA was obliged to respect the health and environment of Nigerian people, then perhaps the extraction costs would be far higher.

It is not true that France has been able to get rid of fossil energies, as there is still a large number of fossil-based plants, because the nuclear energy alone cannot provide enough during consumption peaks (for a list:

In addition, I challenge anyone to provide an accurate estimate of worldwide cancer deaths due to the nuclear sector. As everybody knows, cancers arise from a variety of factors, which makes it very difficult to quantify cancer deaths caused by the nuclear sector.

What I want to point out is that there are a lot of uncertainties, which make the picture really not as clear for me than it seems to be for you. Perhaps you are right in saying that nuclear is better than the other alternatives for the environment. I recognize that I would not be able to draw a conclusion between the nuclear and renewable alternatives from an environmental point of view.

However, from economic and societal point of views, to my mind, transparency is the biggest issue with the nuclear sector. If Australian people are to be engaged on the nuclear path, then they should always keep a severe, close look on their nuclear sector. They should make sure that the development of such a sector is closely assessed by an independent institution. The public money spent in the nuclear in France could have been spent on energy consumption reductions, where there is a lot left to do. Sadly, we French people never had a word to say in this; the public has never been consulted on this question.


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