Thoughtscapism Goes Nuclear at Bonn COP23

Last week, after watching a freshly premiered inspiring documentary – The New Fire – about a new generation of young scientists and engineers (at Oklo, Transatomic, and TerraPower) whose goal is to tackle climate change and help alleviate poverty through novel designs of nuclear power, I was all fired up myself.

I realized that Germany will be hosting the UN Climate Conference COP23 in Bonn in two weeks. Germany also happens to be a much publicized campaigner of ‘Energiewende’ – a plan that has included phasing out nuclear and increasing renewables. Unfortunately, even their impressive ramp-up of renewable technologies hasn’t been enough to compensate for the loss of low-carbon energy from nuclear, so Germany has had to turn to even more of the dirtiest fossil fuels (lignite and coal) and as a result, they have scrapped their carbon target.

Wind power can make great contributions – sometimes the wind blows and Germany’s emissions are low. But when it doesn’t? Carbon targets be damned! This is not a shining example of progressive energy policy. We need to do better.

CO2 map

The map above (a snapshot of the live map that I took as I was writing this) may actually show a somewhat favourable view of Germany.

UPDATE! A comprehensive report on Europe’s decarbonisation efforts have just been published: COP23 Europe’s Climate Leaders and Laggers Revealed. It is dire reading on Germany’s part:

Germany’s much-vaunted “Energiewende” programme has made things worse for the climate by shutting down carbon free nuclear capacity and locking in the dependency on coal burning for decades, despite hundreds of billions in investments and subsidy-schemes. In terms of absolute greenhouse gas emissions, Germany is by far the largest emitter in Europe (EU-28 plus EFTA plus Turkey). Germany alone emits 18 per cent of total emissions. Germany is not decarbonising as fast as other large emitters (14th of 23 countries analysed). Furthermore, by exporting electricity generated by fossil fuels, Germany is significantly increasing the CO2-intensity of neighbouring countries’ electricity consumption.

According to the data presented by  Environmental Progress, Germany had the average emissions of 560g of CO2 per kWh over the four years – corresponding to the category brown, like Turkey in the map above.

Meanwhile, France and Sweden have largely decarbonised their energy fleets in the 1970’s and 80’s with nuclear power, and kept their low emission status (around 60g CO2 per kWh) ever since. For more detailed breakdowns of the data, see Environmental Progress’ presentation here (PDF) or the Franhofer Institute data here. Update: If you would like to see the breakdown of CO2 per inhabitant instead, check out the EU stats for carbon emissions – note they are total emissions from all sectors, not only electricity, but the trend is largely similar.

Screen Shot 2017-10-30 at 23.42.55

Germany, average rate 560 g CO2/kWh and France, average rate 58 g CO2/kWh

As an example of a climate victory, in 2014, the large Canadian province Ontario actually quit coal power altogether! But this event hasn’t been championed in the news the way Germany has been, despite the diametrical results of their efforts. Why? Probably because Ontario generates more than half of its energy with nuclear power.

Despite the many practical demonstrations of decarbonisation aided by nuclear power, politicians in many parts of the world have opted to ride on popular fear campaigns toward nuclear instead. They have jumped onto the bandwagons of phasing out nuclear in a time when we need all forms of low-carbon energy more than ever before. I do understand that reaction of fear, because I used to be quite caught up in it myself.

How did a biologist and an environmentalist like myself become a supporter of nuclear?

Fear is a very visceral reaction, and it’s easy to get carried away by it. I don’t know if I can give myself too much credit for seeing past that, it’s more that I think I was lucky in the encounters I had that offered me the time and safe space I needed to process those fears and become open to learning more. I had the benefit of listening to a friend who had gone from being staunchly anti-nuclear to having a positive outlook on nuclear power over the course of her studies in radiochemistry. Her testimony opened my mind to the evidence, and I am thankful that it did. Because the more I read about energy forms, the more worried I became about the environmental threats from abandoning nuclear power.

Why do I support nuclear
Could we help more people get this opportunity of a friendly encounter offering them a chance to re-evaluate their views?

A couple of great evidence-based environmental NGOs I knew of, like Generation Atomic from the US, and Bright New World from Australia, were headed to UN Climate Conference in Bonn in their efforts to inform people about that our best chances of climate mitigation include nuclear. So were some of my fellow Finnish Ecomodernists, who had also visited COP21 in Paris two years earlier, handing out copies of their excellent book Climate Gamble to the conference participants for free.

Generation Atomic put out a crowdfunding plea to help fund their trip – Generation Atomic goes nuclear at Bonn. I supported it once, then forgot that and donated again. I don’t regret it! Anyone who hasn’t heard GA’s founder Eric Meyer (former opera singer) sing about nuclear power has missed out on something. I sure hope the participants of COP23 will get to hear it too.

However, as I supported them, I realized this time I could do something other than just give money.

Paying the good deed forward

Bonn is only six hours by train from where I live. These people were doing something that really matters. I could do it too. I could be a visible presence of Mothers for Nuclear in Bonn. If I could give even one person the opportunity I had, of having the chance to re-evaluate their views in the light of the evidence, it would be worth it.

I’ve been very excited ever since, juggling pumpkin and autumn-turnip carving, and turnip-light parade with the kids, and all other manner of things, while simultaneously making plans for flyers, compiling my favourite sources and arguments for nuclear into little info packages, finding thematic t-shirts to buy, figuring out where to buy materials for a sign, and wondering what ever a ‘foam board’ may be called in here in Switzerland.

Screen Shot 2017-10-29 at 11.19.31

My mind has been buzzing with the question of how to best reach the minds of both professionals and the public in and around the conference, to get them to look at the evidence on nuclear as an important clean energy form. If you have some ideas, please feel welcome to share your thoughts on the best approaches, most convincing arguments and illuminating graphs on the topic, in the comments below, on the Thoughtscapism FB page, or on twitter.

I don’t want to make the mistake of being too detached and technical – I am very interested in the data myself, and can make the mistake of blasting people with it. I’m trying to balance it out by also connecting back to my personal motivation behind my support of nuclear – like in the banner above.

I do still want to include important data points along with presenting my personal appeal, to make sure I am not just another loud voice of personal conviction, but also one that may inspire others to look at greater depth at the evidence.

We need nuclear

Read more: IPCC 2014 report on Energy Supply (see page 304). The International Energy Agency Technology Roadmap says nuclear share must at least double by 2050 for a realistic chance of staying under the 2-degree warming.

The global energy use chart above is a grim remainder about how much work there still is to do. In Europe, nuclear power represents an even larger source of clean energy than hydropower, however there are not a lot of unharnessed hydro power opportunities available. Despite increase in renewables installations, their share of European energy production is still well less than half of nuclear’s. It should be clear that we can’t afford to make this a question of either/or, and to choose favourites among the low-carbon solutions.

As Professor Sir David McKay, and the author of Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air, so eloquently put in the foreword for Paris COP21 edition of the Climate Gamble:

Climate change action is remarkably difficult. Society has many levers available:

  • demand-reduction through lifestyle change or technology changes;
  • eating less meat;
  • bioenergy;
  • wind power;
  • solar power;
  • hydro-electricity;
  • carbon capture and storage;
  • nuclear power;
  • carbon-dioxide removal;
  • reforestation;
  • solar radiation management;
  • population reduction.

Every lever has technical limits and political difficulties. […] Anyone who suggests that one of these levers should not be used by society must recognise that this constraint inevitably makes the task of climate change action harder.

Excluding a reliable and safe energy form our low-carbon arsenal would indeed make fighting climate change that much harder. And we won’t get far with that if we can’t overcome its greatest obstacle: fear of nuclear power.

Nuclear is one of the safest energy forms

I’ve often sent people worried about nuclear power to this excellent collection of resources written by one of the authors of Climate Gamble, Janne Korhonen, titled: What does research say on the safety of nuclear power? Unfortunately, people are often not interested in reading much more about something they feel they are already convinced on. So let’s try looking at this question from a different, and shorter, point of view.

How many lives would have been lost without nuclear power?

Nuclear is safe

Famous climate scientist James Hansen and his colleague P.A. Kharecha published a paper in 2013, outlining the effects of nuclear power in Prevented Mortality and Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Historical and Projected Nuclear Power, concluding that nuclear power has saved a net total of two million lives by replacing energy that would have been produced by coal. Nuclear power continues to save about 80 000 lives per year, at current rate. And it has the potential to save so many more.

You can read more on the comparison of nuclear and coal power at Nasa. Several estimates exist on the relative dangers of energy forms, one is the EU-funded ExternE project. For an easy summary overview of the ExternE project results, see Diagram 3 on page 7. Another good article with more reference papers on the topic can be found in Forbes, written by James Conca.

But will these graphs, arguments, and my personal role as the messenger, be good enough to be of any help in initiating good discussions with people at or around the UN Climate Conference? We’ll have to see about that. A bit more than a week to go before I take the train to Bonn, and so much more work to do before that. Now on to making flyers about what I used to think was the greatest drawback to nuclear power: the waste. Imagine my surprise when I learned more about that… Update: here it is, Nuclear Waste: Ideas vs Reality.

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For more of my articles on climate and energy here. If you would like to have a discussion in the comments below, please take note of my Commenting policy. In a nutshell:

  1. Be respectful.
  2. Back up your claims with evidence.

About Thoughtscapism

Cell Biologist, science communicator, an agricultural and biodiversity analyst, and a fiction writer.
This entry was posted in climate, energy, nuclear, renewables and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Thoughtscapism Goes Nuclear at Bonn COP23

  1. Todd D. says:

    Thank you for this column and enjoy COP23! In Canada, we regularly hear about Ontario permanently displacing coal for electricity generation from environmental groups. These same groups don’t ever mention that it is mostly because nuclear generation, on an annual basis, went from 42% to 60% (non-hydro renewables went from 0% to 7%)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Kirk Gothier says:

    Our “ultimate energy source” is nuclear power from the sun, and the huge exponent in Einstein’s elegant equation provides all the guidance humans need to deliver clean air and water, sustainable communities and prosperity, for billions, forever:,,

    Fortunately, the EPA Clean Power Plan clearly supports an “all of the above” energy strategy.

    Unfortunately, the Renewables/Fossil Fuels Industries continue to oppose this strategy, while billions live in poverty and tens of millions die each year from energy poverty and air pollution:,,

    It is past time for all states and nations to identify a clear path towards global energy production and prosperity, which is consistent with all Climate Change Targets and Emission Mandates:

    We either start making decisions based on scientific consensus, or continue to rely on some other metric, which will insure smarter species evolve to replace humans:,,,

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Margi Kindig says:

    Great column! I recommend Robert Hargraves brochure “Radiation: The Facts” as a readable, evidence-based handout:

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Cosmo says:

    I am absolutely convinced that coal is bad for our climate. I am also not worried about safety of nuclear power plants. What I am concerned about and what I am dearly missing in the article is a part dealing with the nuclear waste and how we are going to keep that safe for a time longer than most all of everything we constructed so far lasted.


    • Thanks for your interest! I wrote in the end I am writing my next piece on that. Hope to finish within a few days! In the meantime, the link to the safety research piece by Janne Korhonen is a good place for more of that info.


      • Kirk Gothier says:

        The links in my first paragraph above address many of your concerns! Fortunately, Ecomodernists and emerging energy production technologies have come a long way, since our grandparents built their nuclear power plants. For the first time in history, we can have clean air and water, sustainable communities and prosperity for all our children…


    • Robert Budd says:

      Yes, good question. This is Canada’s approach I’ve followed for a number of years, attended presentations and tours they have hosted. Our municipality put their name forward to be a potential host community for Canada’s first spent fuel repository, so I’ve been motivated to follow the process. I’m actually quite impressed with the process so far.
      I have to say that its left me with no worries about technical aspects. I toured the above ground storage at our local reactor. It was a bit comical in that we received a higher dose of radiation from the rain soaked parking lot (aggregate emits radon) than we received from touching the spent fuel casks.
      Process wise NWMO is very committed to ensuring it improves the surrounding community and that the majority must on board by virtue of a referendum. None of the “its going to be here, get used to it” we’ve seen with our RE development.
      One of the things that has impressed me about nuclear is that ,whether its generation or waste facilities, the surrounding communities benefit in a way that seems to “lift all boats”. Not so for wind developments here that tend to reward a few individuals and devalue many.


    • Now it’s finished! Hope you find my article on Nuclear Waste: Ideas vs Reality, an interesting source of information.

      Thanks very much for reading!


  5. Scott Medwid says:

    This essay is very good. I’m going to read it (with atribution) on my radio show 8 November 2017 on (7am Easter time zone USA)

    Scott Medwid
    Energy News and Space Report Hour
    Wednesday 7am EST
    WOBC 91.5 FM
    Oberlin College and Community Radio

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Robert Budd says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this. Good links. I’ve lived in Ontario all my life. Been off-grid for 30 years, so quite familiar with wind/solar. Actually organized workshops for Citizen’s for Renewable Energy in the ’90’s. Those meetings were often about the horrors of nuclear.
    Curiously over the years I’ve watched and learned and become a strong supporter of nuclear and a renewables sceptic. As Todd pointed out earlier coal replacement gets linked to our Green Energy Act of ’09, but in reality 85% of our coal generation from ’04 till the last plant was closed in ’12 was replaced with nuclear reactors coming back on line after being mothballed in the ’90’s.
    This is a good link to current generation here… . Today we are producing only 20 grams/kwh. It is quite remarkable. Our three nuclear facilities are producing ~60% of that electricity. Unfortunately few know that, as the RE lobby and gov’t invariably credit solar which is close to irrelevant here and wind which is comically out of step with our demand and far too often paid not to produce.
    The other unfortunate part is that emissions here are set to increase when the oldest nuclear plant is shut down in the early ’20’s. Had we have stuck with our Long Term Energy Plan instead of the Green Energy plan we would have two new public owned reactors coming on-line to replace them. Unfortunately that was scuttled by ideology and opportunism and we instead got a plan that saw money thrown at off-shore corporations to build wind farms that have torn apart rural communities here and resulted in the provincial gov’t losing every rural seat.
    The big winners in the new plan have unfortunately been natural gas interests. They will replace much of the lost nuclear with some RE for cosmetic purposes. We once had cheap clean electricity. Now it is clean and expensive, so most have switched to gas or propane for space and water heating. Larger consumers are using gas turbines for co-gen. Not really a positive direction. And we have degraded some of our best ag and wildlife habitat with wind and solar developments, with a great deal more required yet.
    Keep up the helpful dialogue.


  7. Pingback: Nuclear Waste: Ideas vs Reality | Thoughtscapism

  8. George Norman says:

    We are right at the beginning of the non-carbon economy, similar to the time coal and steam began to replace human and animal power. Tecnology advances made those things more efficient, and the same things will happen now. I certainly agree that the solution needs “all of the above,” as electricity demand will escalate mightily as the climate warms and the need for cooling increases.
    Technology will likewise increase the efficiency and safety, while lowering the costs, of all forms of non-carbon power generation.
    For a nuclear example, you should look to France, which committed to nuclear a generation ago, and now generates power at a cheaper cost than Germany. They also re-cycle much of their nuclear waste, thus eliminating much of the problem you pointed out at the beginning of the article. We don’t seem to do that in Canada, I suppose because we can just dig more out of the ground when we need it, but it would certainly make most of us feel better if there wasn’t so much waste lying around in precarious places.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Robert Budd says:

      I spoke with people at Canada’s MWMO about reuse of spent CANDU fuel, as the original designers of those reactors fully intended to re-use fuel. Supplies of new uranium turned out to be more abundant than ever anticipated. And since CANDU’s don’t use enriched uranium to begin with, their spent fuel is low value relative to larger stockpiles of LWR fuel in the US. China is using CANDU’s to consume their own LWR supplies. So even though the containers in Canada’s repository will be retrievable, for the foreseeable future the contents aren’t anticipated to be re-used.
      Quantity wise though its not a great issue in that the repository only requires a surface footprint of 250 acres with only a portion of that actually used by the facilities and associated services. Compared to the volume of waste from coal or airborne GHG’s from wood, coal or NG and its a marvel.


  9. Uwe says:

    Germany has had a very strong environmental movement. Unfortunately, this movement and the Green party has also been pretty ideological. Therefore, evidence based NGOs are very much needed in Bonn. Thank you very much for your effort!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Pingback: Wild Wild Bonn: Anti-nuke protestors get up close & personal, try to get me seized by the police | Thoughtscapism

  11. kelvinsdemon says:

    I hate to seem such a curmudgeon, but I have absolutely no respect at all for wind electric power.
    If the USA had load responsive nuclear power capacity of nearly 100% of its peak demand, and was ten GW short of an actual demand that occurred, what use would 30 GW of wind “turbine” capacity be? NONE! Suppose 10 GW of wind is already contributing to the grid, the only way we can get another 10 GW is if the wind speed increases. It usually won’t !
    Generation IV nuclear, because it is not hampered by the xenon-iodine pit, and its reactivity responds to temperature variations that the load imposes, can be made as load-responsive as gas turbines, because the output stage IS a closed circuit gas turbine, even if it’s steam, because steam is a gas.
    Gen IV runs at near atmospheric pressure, so it will be less exp3ensive to build than current super-high pressure water that has to NOT boil at 300°C, and needs nine inch steel walls for the reactor vessel. Molten salt reactors have a very simple fueling arrangement, because it’s a liquid.
    Anti-nuclear “environmentalism” is about as misguided as the old medical practice of bleeding the patient to let out the “bad blood”.


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