Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Why Lovelock is wrong about nuclear power

Lovelock announced in The Independent on May 24th, 2004 that “Nuclear Power is the only green solution”, adding in a somewhat derisory tone “We have no time to experiment with visionary energy sources” because “civilisation is in imminent danger.”

Wave and tidal power may still be at the design stage in Britain, due to lack of investment on the part of the government, which has chosen to put most of its eggs into one nuclear basket, but photovoltaics and wind power were already well established when Lovelock wrote this. In 2010, the European Photovoltaic Industry Association expects to be able to provide 12% of Europe’s electricity needs just from solar PV. Similarly, the Chief Executive of the British National Grid, Steve Holliday, says that 15% of the country’s electricity production could come from so called “embedded generation” in homes and offices by 2020 as micro-generation becomes increasingly viable after the £9 billion rollout of “smart meters” for every home in Britain. (1)

Lovelock said “we can not continue drawing energy from fossil fuels and there is no chance that the renewables, wind, tide and water power can provide enough energy and in time. If we had 50 years or more we might make these our main sources”.

This assertion is quite untrue and is an indication of the depths of Lovelock’s nuclear obsession. We simply do not need 50 years to develop wind, tide and water power. Huge steps are already being taken in almost all European countries and in the US and Canada: unfortunately Britain lags behind but this is often due to renewable doom-mongers like Lovelock.

With adequate investment in research and development, these sources, together with solar and geothermal, could provide us with all the energy we need within the next few years, especially if insulation were installed in Britain’s unsatisfactory housing stock in order to reduce our energy requirements.

Lovelock says that “only one immediately available source does not cause global warming and that is nuclear energy”.

Oh dear, wrong again. Sometimes one wonders which planet Lovelock is on. Let’s look at the reality of the matter, rather than Lovelock’s imagination.

First, nuclear energy is not “immediately available”. Indeed it’s the other way round: nuclear has by far the longest lead time of any energy option. It takes ages to consult, draw up safety plans, get them approved, build and test nuclear power stations, as consistently seen in the past. The few nuclear power stations being constructed at present amply demonstrate this. Olkiluoto in Finland, under construction for four years, is now nearly four years behind schedule! Similar construction problems beset the Flammanville reactor being built in France.

Second, nuclear power stations costs billions and its predicted costs are always under-estimated. Olkiluoto in Finland and Flammanville in France are both currently running $4 billion over budget. Money thrown into nuclear’s black hole starves finance for alternative energy strategies.

Third, replacing the UK’s old nuclear reactors would only save between 4% and 8% of the UK’s carbon emissions, depending on one’s assumptions, because most carbon emissions emanate from transport and industrial/domestic heating.

Lovelock says that “Opposition to nuclear energy is based on irrational fear fed by Hollywood-style fiction, the Green lobbies and the media. These fears are unjustified, and nuclear energy from its start in 1952 has proved to be the safest of all energy sources.”

This is simply gobbledy-gook.

The respected New York Academy of Sciences has recently published a major study “Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment” in which the authors (Alexey Yablokov, Vassily and Alexey Nesterenko) estimate that nearly a million people around the world died from exposure to radiation released by the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in 1986.

Unlike Lovelock, who clearly has not studied the safety of nuclear power in any detail, these scientists examined more than 5,000 published articles and studies, mostly in Russian and Ukrainian, previously unread in the West. They concluded that "No citizen of any country can be assured that he or she can be protected from radioactive contamination. One nuclear reactor can pollute half the globe. Chernobyl fallout covered the entire Northern Hemisphere." They added "For the past 23 years, it has been clear that there is a danger greater than nuclear weapons concealed within nuclear power. Emissions from this one reactor exceeded by a hundred-fold the radioactive contamination of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki."

But according to Lovelock “We must stop fretting over the minute statistical risks of cancer from chemicals or radiation.” Does he consider the deaths of nearly one million people a minute statistical risk?

Nuclear industry apologists counter that Chernobyl was in the former USSR and nuclear reactors in the West are safer. But what about the nuclear disasters at Windscale in Britain in 1957 where a fire similar to Chernobyl resulted in very large releases of radioactivity? And what about Three Mile Island in the US in 1978, where the reactor underwent a partial meltdown? Human error can occur at any time at any nuclear power station, anywhere in the world.

Lovelock says “(nuclear power’s) worldwide use as our main source of energy would pose an insignificant threat”

Wrong again.

Nuclear reactors are the only source of the fissile material plutonium-239 used in nuclear weapons. Stringent precautions have to be taken to ensure that spent nuclear fuel from commercial reactors does not fall into terrorist hands. Nuclear proliferation is a serious threat to world peace and security (witness the struggle between the West and Iran over the production of another fissile material uranium-235). Is Lovelock unaware of the dangers of nuclear proliferation?

James Lovelock is an independent scientist, the creator of the Gaia hypothesis which considers the Earth as a self-regulating organism, and a member of EFN - the association of Environmentalists For Nuclear Energy -

(1) Times 4th December 2009

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