A response to Neil Mackay’s Big Read in the Herald from Stephen McMurray and Pete Cannell
The ‘Big Read’ in the Herald newspaper on Sunday 4th October was ‘The nuclear option – can atomic power save the human race from climate change?’. In it, journalist Neil Mackay reviews a new book by US earth scientist James Lawrence Powell. Powell argues that we are at a tipping point that will lead to runaway global temperature rises unless decisive action is taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero. In this he is absolutely right. However, he goes on to argue that achieving zero carbon by replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy technologies will take too long. According to Mackay he argues that achieving zero carbon in a decade by adopting renewables is just ‘infeasible’. The only serious option is to produce all our energy needs by a massive expansion in the number nuclear power plants. Essentially, he says that we can use nuclear to buy time while renewable technologies are developed further.
Undoubtedly current energy needs could be met by nuclear. But Powell himself concedes it would take at least 25 years for this level of capacity to be reached. Indeed, construction timetables for nuclear power stations are notorious for length overruns.
Powell is not alone in arguing for nuclear as the means to end the climate crisis. However, in our view the nuclear strategy is profoundly mistaken.
Nuclear power has always been entangled with nuclear weapons programmes. The US ‘Atoms for Peace’ programme, launched at the height of the cold war promised a future of almost limitless energy. In truth the civilian reactors provided the raw material for a huge increase in the US nuclear arsenal. By 1961 the US inventory of nuclear weapons was equivalent to 1,360,000 Hiroshima bombs. In the US, the UK, Russia and elsewhere nuclear power has always been a necessary support for nuclear weapons. In the UK context researchers at the University of Sussex Science Policy Research Unit have shown that the sole case for nuclear power is to subsidise nuclear weapons. Electricity consumers are paying for the high cost of an industry that subsidises the military nuclear weapons programme.
Worldwide the number of operational nuclear plants is in long-term decline. In part this is a response to Chernobyl and Fukushima, but it is also a result of the high cost of building new plants (not to mentioning the eyewatering sums needed for decommissioning plants at the end of their life). Renewables are cheaper than nuclear power and the gap is growing year on year.
Nuclear power is not zero carbon either. Greenhouse gases are admitted at every stage of the lifespan of a nuclear power station. The process of mining uranium and the process of milling and separating the uranium from the ore omits considerable carbon and is likely to be more energy intensive in the future.
Powell has undoubtedly played an important role in arguing the case for rapid action in the face of the climate crisis. He is a fine scientist. However, in making the case for nuclear he employs inaccurate data and even worse judgement.
He notes that in Sweden GDP and carbon emissions rose in lockstep until Sweden increase nuclear power generation at which point GDP started to grow faster than emissions. We are meant to understand here that GDP is equivalent to wealth and that with nuclear we can have GDP growth and low emissions. This is an argument that appeals to big business – it should be less appealing to the 99% for whom GDP growth in recent decades has gone along with increasing inequality.
He dismisses renewables as being immature and not ready yet. But serious studies around the world, including those by Commonweal in Scotland and the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales, have shown that existing renewable technologies can achieve zero carbon. The technologies that are not ready are those like Carbon Capture and Storage which are advocated by those who want to tackle the climate crisis while not making the radical changes in the economic system that a genuinely sustainable economy requires.
Inexcusably Powell plays down the issue of nuclear safety and Mackay repeats his figures without questioning them. ‘Manual for Survival – A Chernobyl Guide to the Future’ by Kate Brown ought to be compulsory reading for anyone writing on this topic. In a scrupulous forensic investigation, she uncovers the decades long efforts by the old Soviet Union and then the US to cover up the real impact of Chernobyl. Rather than Powell’s 4 – 16 thousand deaths the true figure is most likely in the range 35 – 150,000. And it remains the case that long-term safe storage of the radioactive by-products of nuclear power remains unsolved.