Lack of Environment

A blog on the politics and psychology underlying the denial of all our environmental problems

I’m nothing if not controversial

with 8 comments

This week saw the first anniversary of the Earthquake and Tsunami that devastated the east coast of Japan, which I still vividly remember watching – in total disbelief on live TV – as black water filled with burning debris inundated huge swathes of farmland: It was simultaneously mesmerising and sickening in equal measure.

Greenpeace and many other environmental groups made a bug fuss about the ensuing breakdown of the Fukushima nuclear power plant but, as with many other things in life, things are never as simple as we would like them to be. Therefore, despite the fact that I am a Greenpeace supporter (e.g. with regard to their ‘Go Beyond Oil’ campaign), I do not agree with their facile opposition to nuclear power. For the time being at least, I wish to remain ambivalent – and here is why:

Fukushima was actually incredibly well designed (to cope with reasonably foreseeable events); and the only reason its defences failed is that the coastline subsided in the 20 minutes between the quake and tsunami hitting it. After that, the failure of the back-up generators became inevitable if fuel supplies were not replenished.

Seismologists reckon that Tokyo will be the next place to be hit by a similarly massive Earthquake so, I agree that the Japanese should close down the nuclear power stations there immediately. However, there is only one problem remaining – Japan does not have many other options; but I am sure it could now invest heavily (global debt crisis permitting) in tidal and wind power…

However, adopting a global perspective, more people die each year putting on their underwear than die from nuclear accidents. Nuclear waste and proliferation risks are problems we cannot magic out of existence and, if we had not given up on Fast Breeder Reactors (FBR) 25 years ago, we would probably have them working by now. If this were the case then, we would now be able to re-process all the long-lived, highly-radioactive waste into a much smaller volume of less radioactive waste that will not remain dangerous for anything like as long. Furthermore, FBR could have solved all our nuclear waste and energy supply problems because conventional thermal nuclear reactors can only use less than 1% of all the Earth’s uranium (i.e. the other 99% can only be used as fuel in FBRs).

Despite all of the above, however, I think the best argument for NOT pursuing nuclear energy is in fact that it is high-tech; and is just another way of perpetuating the dependency of poor countries on Western technology. Therefore, as much as I hope that the use of renewables can be scaled-up to provide for all our future energy needs, in the long run, I think FBR will prove unavoidable. This is because, notwithstanding the decimation of the human population of the planet that may yet be caused by climate change, it seems likely that the global population could be 50% greater than it is today by the end of the century.

If this is indeed what is going to happen then, climate change will continue to erode our ability to grow sufficient food at the same time as we will have to try and feed ever greater numbers of people. This means that we will have to find ways of growing food on land not currently suited to agriculture (e.g. hydroponics), which will lead to the industrialisation of the countryside. In turn, this will mean that food production will have to compete for space with novel means of renewable energy generation that take up a lot of space (e.g. farming algae for biofuel, or solar power stations).

Countries like the UK are extremely lucky to have a very high ratio of coastline per unit land area; so it must be hoped we will make best use of it for tidal power generation schemes. However, many countries will not have the luxury of a choice. Many, therefore, may be forced to buy-in solar power generated on land that is genuinely unusable for anything else (such as the Sahara desert).

For all of these reasons, I agree with those who say that within a 50 to 100 year time horizon, the necessity for widespread deployment of FBR is almost a dead certainty.

So, I’m sorry to all who are anti-Nukes but, this is not an ideal world!

Recommended reading: Blees, T (2008), Prescription for the Planet: The Painless Remedy for Our Energy & Environmental Crises.

8 Responses

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  1. Martin,

    I agree that nuclear power can/should be utilized to provide much of electrical power needs. Aside from the problems you mentioned with the Japanese reactors, they were designed back in the 1960s and built by 1970 or in the early 1970s. I’m certain we can do much better now wrt to reactor design and construction. But it’s location, location, location…few people in the U.S. would accept a nuclear reactor anywhere near where they live, work, or play. I’m an exception, because I think they can made made very safe. Another issue has to do with the disposal/storage of nuclear waste…we don’t know what to do with the stuff. And the third issue comes to mind is that the U.S. does not like anyone, not paying homage to us–I mean not a strong ally–messing with nuclear energy. The best case is Iran, which everyone knows with Resolute Certainty, if not Metaphysical Certainty, is not building nuclear weapons, but has a nuclear program for peaceful purposes. There is much talk of war with Iran here in the U.S., especially by our Republican presidential candidates. None of these problems are insurmountable. More likely, they are an excuse for doing nothing to reduce our dependency on carbon-based fuel.

    Peter Goodman

    14 March 2012 at 02:15

    • Thanks for that, Peter. Last year the DECC put out a consultation asking for opinions on what to do with the UK’s plutonium stocks. I think I was one of quite a sizeable minority that wrote-in saying they should do nothing with it because one day it could be used as fuel for an FBR.

      In the 1990’s I worked on the site investigation for a deep geological repository beneath Sellafield (in Cumbria), and have also beeninvolved in technically assessing the feasibility of using an old salt mine at Billingham (on Teesside) as a repository for hazardous waste. The hydrogeological risk assessments for such things were indeeed very challenging; but no more so than is the idea of carbon capture and storage (CCS). If CCS is ever achieved but the CO2 subsequently escapes back into biosphere, the whole exercise will have been a huge waste of time and money. As I keep saying, CCS is almost certainly FFL proaganda; and it is treating the symptoms not the cause. What we need is behaviour modification.

      Martin Lack

      14 March 2012 at 07:29

  2. I’m all for nuclear power, all it needs is for more government safety regulations to be included into their construction and maintenance. Corporations are well known to be too lax and penny pinching when it comes to safety so that if we can force them to “Think Safety First” then all our prayers might be answered.

    In saying that however … I did read a book once called “The man who sold the moon” describing what would happen if we became dependent on nuclear power, it would have devastating consequences.

    So I can only see it as a temporal necessity until better energy sourcing devices are invented


    14 March 2012 at 09:05

    • Thanks Donald. I have not heard of that book. Although it remains possible that overshoot and collapse may yet obviate its necessity and/or erode our technical capability, I think that the widespread reliance upon nuclear power (say 100 years from now) may still remain inevitable.

      As many authors have demonstrated (most notably William Ophuls), overshoot and collapse occur when a population continues to grow without regard to warning signs that limitations on food supply are approaching. We have been witnessing these warning signs for over 40 years; and climate change is now making matters worse (i.e. by shifting climatic zones, soil nutrient depletion, salinization, erosion and desertification, and causing saline groundwater intrusion and/or inundation of coastal farmland) – then add into that mix market distortions like subsidised agricultural over-production in the USA and EU leading to food dependency (rather than independence) in poor countries – and you have one truly toxic mix.

      It’s time we faced it: Humanity has f*ck*d up big time!

      Martin Lack

      14 March 2012 at 09:45

    • Therein lies the problem: too many governments are running away from all kinds of regulations as though corporations of any kind were trustworthy. Politicians in both Canada (where I live) and the US are screaming and voting for the elimination of environmental regulations. Now. With climate change slowly but surely creeping up on us. With natural ecosystems, our sources of clean water, air and soil, being erroded away. And all for the sake of the economy. They even want to deregulate the financial system despite the economic downturn we’ve gone through since 2008.

      In this political environment, I wouldn’t trust politicians to pass intelligent regulations for nuclear power.


      15 March 2012 at 18:46

      • I am not sure they ever have. However, as is often said, there’s no time like the present…

        Martin Lack

        17 March 2012 at 17:37

        • As long as the regulation is based on science and not corporate motivation for increased profit, I’m all for it. By the way, I looked into FBR. Very neat stuff.


          18 March 2012 at 02:12

        • Thanks JP. Like I have said many times now (or so it seems), even before I knew of James Hansen’s views or had ever heard of Tom Blees, my review of UK policy towards nuclear energy (in late 2010) convinced me that the UK gave up on FBR because it was controversial – not because it was expensive. Furthermore, in the face of finite resources, it seems to me that it must have have been self-evident that FBR would one day become financially viable precisely because – one day – we would have no other choice…
          A brief history of UK nuclear policy – part 1 (9 November 2011); and
          A brief history of UK nuclear policy – part 2 (10 November 2011).

          If you have not done so already, please check out both of the above posts (and their respective references).

          Martin Lack

          18 March 2012 at 10:42

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