Nuclear Energy and My Greenpeace Conundrum
- Posted on June 5, 2013
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Greenpeace USA wants me to renew my annual membership. I’m ambivalent.
A letter signed by Phil Radford, who leads Greenpeace USA, paints a dire picture of the state of the environment:
We all see polluters poisoning our air, water and land; killing innocent wildlife, destroying our forests, pillaging aquatic life, increasing global warming and endangering human health–particularly the health of our children.
This is, alas, mostly true. US air quality is improving, although 40 percent of Americans live in counties that sometimes have unhealthy levels of air pollution, according to the American Lung Association. Water quality in most American streams and river is poor, the most recent report from EPA says. The amount of forest land in the US has been more or less stable for about a century, says the USDA’s Forest Service, but just this week, it was revealed that valuable forest land is being destroyed to supply “green” wood for burning in Europe. As for global warming–yes, there’s lots to worry about, and Greenpeace’s activism around the climate issue has been one reason why I’ve supported the organization for years.
Noisy activist groups like Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and the Rainforest Action Network have important roles to play in the “ecosystem” that includes business, government and environmental groups. They spotlight the most egregious practices, target the worst polluters, build popular support and, indirectly, help connect companies to other NGOs. In a way, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and RAN function as the business-development arms of NGOS like the World Wildlife Fund and the Nature Conservancy; they raise a ruckus and companies turn to the corporate-friendly NGOs to help them get out of trouble.
Greenpeace also deftly deploys a tactic called “rank ’em and spank ’em,” comparing, for example, the climate footprint of leading IT companies or the seafood purchasing practices of big retailers. These campaigns helped persuade Facebook to shift away from coal and influenced major grocery chains to adopt seafood purchasing policies. What’s more, Greenpeace has the ability to work effectively with business, notably by helping to persuade Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Unilever and others to join in a global shift towards natural refrigerants.
So what’s not to like? Well, there’s this, from Phil’s letter:
Greenpeace Speaks Out to Eliminate Nuclear Power:
Greenpeace is working to end the expansion of nuclear power. The U.S. already has more nuclear power plants than any other country. The United States currently has 104 operating nuclear reactors, and each one is a threat to public health, safety and the environment.
Nationwide, 1 in 3 Americans live within 50 miles of a nuclear plant. Do you? If a meltdown was to occur, the accident could kill and injure tens of thousands of people and leave large regions uninhabitable.
This passage, by the way, follows a section headed Greenpeace Speaks Out to Curb Global Warming. Does that make sense to you?
It doesn’t make sense to me. If we want to keep the lights on, and at an affordable price, without increasing the risks of climate change, nuclear power–at the very least, the plants we have today, and quite probably, more–has to be part of the solution. If Greenpeace manages to persuade the US or other governments to “eliminate nuclear power”–that’s what the headline says–the risk of catastrophic climate change will grow much worse. Climate activists/environmentalists who support nuclear power include Stewart Brand (in his excellent book Whole Earth Discipline), ex-DOE chief Steven Chu, contrarians Michael Shellenberger and Ted Norhaus (see Going Green? Then Go Nuclear), the former British prime minister Tony Blair, economist Jeffrey Sachs nd ex-NASA scientist James Hansen.
In an essay about this scientific paper, Hansen and his NASA colleague Pushker Kharecha recently wrote:
…without nuclear power, it will be even harder to mitigate human-caused climate change and air pollution. This is fundamentally because historical energy production data reveal that if nuclear power never existed, the energy it supplied almost certainly would have been supplied by fossil fuels instead (overwhelmingly coal), which cause much higher air pollution-related mortality and GHG emissions per unit energy produced.
Using historical electricity production data and mortality and emission factors from the peer-reviewed scientific literature, we found that despite the three major nuclear accidents the world has experienced, nuclear power prevented an average of over 1.8 million net deaths worldwide between 1971-2009. This amounts to at least hundreds and more likely thousands of times more deaths than it caused. An average of 76,000 deaths per year were avoided annually between 2000-2009, with a range of 19,000-300,000 per year.
Likewise, we calculated that nuclear power prevented an average of 64 gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent (GtCO2-eq) net GHG emissions globally between 1971-2009. This is about 15 times more emissions than it caused. It is equivalent to the past 35 years of CO2 emissions from coal burning in the U.S. or 17 years in China — i.e., historical nuclear energy production has prevented the building of hundreds of large coal-fired power plants….
We conclude that nuclear energy — despite posing several challenges, as do all energy sources — needs to be retained and significantly expanded in order to avoid or minimize the devastating impacts of unabated climate change and air pollution caused by fossil fuel burning.
As I understand it, this paper compares nuclear power to fossil fuels. Greenpeace and the Sierra Club will argue that the superior alternative, for a host of reasons, is an electrical power system that relies on solar power, wind power and other forms of renewable energy. In theory, they’re right–but it has yet to be demonstrated that a modern electricity grid can rely upon intermittent sources of energy for round-the-clock affordable power.
Germany is the country most often praised by enviros for its commitment to renewable energy. According to Osha Gray Davidson’s excellent Kindle Single, Clean Break, Germany gets about 25 percent of its electricity from solar, wind and biomass. But Osha reports that getting to Germany’s goal of 80% of electricity from renewables will require building 5,000 miles of power lines, at a cost of $25 billion, as well as developing cost-effective means of energy storage for days when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. Already, Germany residential electricity customers pay about 28 cents per kilowatt, roughly three times the average cost in the U.S.; about 5 cents of the 28 cents is attributable to renewable energy subsidies, according to Der Speigel. Electricity from Germany’s solar installations cost four times as much as a Finnish nuclear plant that’s behind schedule and over budget, according to this analysis by Alex Trembath. Solar panel prices have dropped more than 80% in the past five years, so driving prices lower won’t be easy.
To be sure, nuclear power is also expensive and it comes with significant tradeoffs, as do all forms of energy. (Solar and wind projects in Germany are destroying natural habitat, provoking a backlash from environmentalists.) Nuclear waste disposal remains a big issue in the US, although the problem is more political than technological. Another big drawback: Nukes take a long time to build, in part because of opposition from groups like Greenpeace. But countries like France have devised solutions to the problem of nuclear waste, and smaller-scale, next-generation nukes could be deployed more rapidly, assuming they clear regulatory hurdles in the US. In any event, in the near term, no new nuclear plants will be developed in the US because natural gas prices are too low. So the issue is moot for now.
Given that, I’m renewing with Greenpeace. The NGO does a lot more good than harm.
But I hope my friends at Greenpeace and the Sierra Club will rethink their opposition to nuclear power. We don’t need an all-of-the-above energy strategy–that’s folly, if it includes burning lots of fossil fuels–but we do need an all-of-the-above low carbon energy strategy, led by a strong commitment to renewables and energy efficiency, but including nuclear and some natural gas (ideally with carbon capture) to provide affordable baseload power. Instead of trying to eliminate nuclear power, environmentalists should work with industry to make it safer and cheaper.
As the Greenpeace banner above says: “Climate change is deadly. Get serious.”