Nuclear Energy: the safe choice for now

By James Lovelock, Honorary Visiting Fellow, Green College, Oxford University -July 2005

I write as an independent scientist and environmentalist, not as a representative of any government department, or industry, or NGO.

As a scientist my present concern is with the Earth as a self regulating system, one that has throughout the eons sustained for living things a habitable climate and chemistry. We are fortunate to live on so benign a planet but we cannot expect a freedom to change its atmosphere and surface with impunity. Indeed, a sizeable and representative group of scientists concerned with the consequences of human intervention, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued their third annual assessment in 2001. They predicted that our continued burning of carbon fuel would lead to an increase in global temperature of between 1.5oC and 6oC by the end of this century. The seriousness of this prediction does not seem to have registered with the public or the media; yet the consequences of such a rise in temperature could be awesome. Their most probable prediction is a rise in temperature of 3.5oC globally, which is about the same as the rise in temperature from the ice age to the pre-industrial period of the 18th century. To give you some idea of the consequences of such a rise in global temperature, consider someone living, just over 10,000 years ago, in a coastal region of South East Asia in the milder climate of the ice age tropics. Who then could have imagined that in a short time the sea would rise 120 metres and put beneath the waves an area of land equal in size to the continent of Africa? Who then would have predicted the emergence of the tropical rain forests and a three-fold decline in ocean life? People survived through these changes and will survive through the severe but different changes to come, but civilization is much more fragile.

There is widespread ignorance not only about the seriousness of global warming but also about the way that the Earth System sustains a habitable climate and composition; few are aware of the dynamic interaction between the ecosystems of the land surface and the oceans and their physical environment, still fewer know that this interaction keeps the Earth habitable. Instead, it is widely believed that we can farm all of the Earth's fertile land to feed people; we cannot because some of it is needed by the Earth to regulate its chemistry and climate and keep the planet habitable.

Global warming is the consequence of pollution by combustion products and by the destruction of natural habitats, such as the tropical forests. It will take many years even decades to significantly change the world's farming practices; this is why we have few alternatives but greatly to reduce the proportion of energy we take from the unsafe practice of burning carbon fuel. It would be wonderful if we could maintain civilization by organic farming and renewable energy sources alone, but it is foolish fantasy to think that we could do so soon enough to avoid risking a greenhouse catastrophe. What is needed is a portfolio of safe proven and reasonably economic energy sources; no single one of them is likely to meet all needs. In this portfolio nuclear energy would be a major source and supplement the meagre supplies of energy from foreseeable renewable sources and from fossil fuel burnt so that the carbon dioxide is effectively sequestered. Nuclear energy is now from an economic and an engineering viewpoint a well tried, safe and sensible source of energy. But public fear of it is widespread and sustains a climate of ignorance, which artificially inflates the cost of nuclear energy and of waste disposal.

An outstanding advantage of nuclear over fossil fuel energy is how easy it is to deal with the waste it produces. Fossil fuel burning produces twenty seven thousand million tons of carbon dioxide yearly. This is enough if solidified to make a mountain nearly two kilometres high and with a base ten kilometres in circumference. The same quantity of energy if it came from nuclear reactions would make fourteen thousand tons of high level waste. A quantity that occupies a sixteen metre sided cube. The carbon dioxide waste is invisible but so deadly that if its emissions go unchecked it will kill nearly everyone. The nuclear waste buried in pits at the production sites is no threat to Gaia and dangerous only to those foolish enough to expose themselves to its radiation.

There is much loose talk of burying the carbon dioxide waste but there seems to be little realisation of the sheer difficulty of the task. How is it to be collected from the myriad sources around the world? Where can we put these mountains that we make each year?

I find it sad but all too human that there are vast bureaucracies concerned about nuclear waste, huge organisations devoted to decommissioning nuclear power stations, but nothing comparable to deal with that truly malign waste, carbon dioxide.

A television interviewer asked me "but what about nuclear waste? The Greens are saying that it will poison the whole biosphere and persist for millions of years." I knew this to be a falsehood whose magnitude would have won Baron Munchausen's approval; I also knew that the natural world would welcome nuclear waste as the perfect guardian against greedy developers, and whatever slight harm it might represent was a small price to pay. One of the striking things about places heavily contaminated by radioactive nuclides is the richness of their wild life. This is true of the land around Chernobyl, the bomb test sites of the Pacific, and areas near the notorious Hanford nuclear weapons plants of the Second World War. Wild plants and animals do not perceive radiation as dangerous and any slight reduction it may cause in their life spans is far less a hazard than is the presence of people, their livestock and their pets . It is easy to forget that now we are so numerous, almost anything extra we do in the way of farming, forestry, home building is harmful to wild life and to Gaia.

A fact about Chernobyl that is rarely mentioned because it is so contrary to perceived wisdom is the unscheduled appearance of a wild life park in the land nearby considered too radioactive for people to enter. The animals and birds of the Ukraine find the absence of humans more than offsets the potential harm from radiation and they live and breed there more successfully than on the uncontaminated ground outside their enclave. The wildlife of Chernobyl know nothing about radiation and do not fear it. That they might live a little less long than they otherwise would is of no great consequence to them. Could this experience suggest that the best sites for nuclear waste disposal are the tropical forests and other habitats in need of a reliable guardian against their destruction by hungry farmers and greedy developers?

We are denied the benefits of nuclear energy by a false perception of danger and the natural reluctance of politicians to risk unpopularity. In private, some members of the green Movement will acknowledge this, but they know also that their supporters are so sure that nuclear energy is the greatest of hazards that a change of mind would be almost impossible. Some on the Left see it as a buttress of capitalism and remember the failure of the coal miners' strike in the early 1980s, and how it was linked with the role of nuclear power, which maintained a sufficient supply of electricity. To them this is an important human and political objection but when the global consequences of fossil fuel combustion are fully recognised, I think that they will understand that such an objection is a luxury we can ill afford. Sometime in the coming century the first greenhouse catastrophe may happen and then we will look back and see what a vast disservice our politicians had done by neglecting the benefice of the atom. Those politicians so unwise as to give in to fear and allow the closure of working nuclear power plants will have much to answer.

Yet the worst that could happen, if Chernobyls became endemic, is that our life expectation was slightly less in a mildly radioactive world. Such likelihood is remote; nuclear engineering like aviation has grown safer with time and experience and will continue to do so. What is not remote, indeed has already happened, is the first catastrophe to come from the intensifying global greenhouse. In the summer of 2003 more than 30,000 Europeans died of excessive heat; had there not been an omnipresent photochemical smog, an aerosol haze that covered Europe, the temperature would have been 2oC to 3oC hotter and many more would have died -- the smog reflects sunlight back to space and lessens the heating of the ground. The raging heat of Europe's summer was a consequence of the global greenhouse and a warning of worse to come. Very soon we have to pick a portfolio of energy sources free of adverse consequences for the Earth. If we fail we are faced with the possibility of the loss of our hard won civilization in a greenhouse catastrophe and we will be remembered, as are the Easter Islanders, by the hill top monuments left behind to spin out their message of failed good intentions.