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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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;
- wind power;
- solar power;
- carbon capture and storage;
- nuclear power;
- carbon-dioxide removal;
- 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?
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.
- Be respectful.
- Back up your claims with evidence.