What you think you know about decarbonisation is probably wrong

In advance of her talk to us in May (see details under the Events tab), Zion Lights has written this article for us outlining her arguments on decarbonisation of our energy systems and the role nuclear energy should play in it.

Climate crisis, climate emergency. These words are frequently thrown around, but what’s being done about climate change? We know that greenhouse gas emissions are a large part of the problem, so why aren’t we building all the clean energy possible to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels?

The answer is more convoluted than you may think. First, the only large industrialised nations in the world that have been able to decarbonise have done so with a combination of hydropower and/or nuclear energy, with a little solar and wind power on top.

The countries are: France, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland and Paraguay.

You might question why other countries haven’t followed suit. The simple answer is that while France addressed an oil crisis in the 1970s by building 52 nuclear reactors, the rest of the world succumbed to misinformation about nuclear energy. For decades, the environmental movement fought against this clean and reliable source of energy, on the basis that it is dangerous and unnecessary.

As a long-term environmentalist, I was part of this movement. I watched my peers spread myths about how nuclear energy wasn’t safe, clean or necessary, and told scary stories about waste and radiation. Pop culture ran with the narrative, and nuclear energy was wiped off the map around the world. Fossil fuels remained dominant.

I believed that renewables could power the world. This is true to some degree, as ‘renewables’ is a spurious term, which is not synonymous with ‘clean’. The term ‘renewables’ includes biomass, wind power, solar power and hydropower, but these sources of energy generation were not created equally. Hydropower is reliable and clean, but it is geographically limited to specific regions of the world. As well, it is the least safe option of clean energy sources – the worst ever energy-generation disaster was the Banqiao dam collapse in China in 1975, which killed between 171,000 and 230,000 people. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t use hydropower. It’s just to illustrate how misguided our fear of one of the safest forms of energy – nuclear energy – is.

Biomass is classed as renewable, but it is heavily polluting. In 2017, greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of biomass for electricity production in UK power stations were around fifteen million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. Biomass also confuses statistics for renewables by forming the bulk of the figures for renewables around the world. For example, in the UK, biomass is the biggest source of ‘renewable’ energy consumed, and the main source of biomass burnt in UK power stations is wood pellets. 

In a letter signed by 650 scientists, they write: 

“Troublingly, because it has wrongly been deemed ‘carbon neutral,’ many countries are increasingly relying on forest biomass to meet net zero goals. This is harming our world’s forests when we need them most. Many of the wood pellets burned at power stations for bioenergy are coming from whole trees — not wastes and residues from logging, as the industry claims. For example, nearly half of all biomass burned at the UK’s Drax Power Station comes from whole trees.”

That leaves us with wind and solar power. The problem with these intermittent sources of energy is the lack of storage. They’re great when it’s windy or sunny, and cheap on the surface level – a few panels or turbines don’t cost much up front. But then you add the battery storage, wires and poles needed to connect them to the grid, and suddenly you’re dealing with an expensive project that can only supply electricity for some of the time. That’s because the storage doesn’t last long.

Somewhat infamously now, Germany spent trillions of Euros on Energiewende, or ‘energy turnaround’, which was the country’s plan to run on only renewable energy by 2038. Integral to this plan was complete closure of the country’s nuclear power plants and coal-fired power stations. Energiewende failed; Germany has had to reopen its mothballed coal-fired stations. Remember the viral photo of the protesters trying to stop the demolition of a village in western Germany to make way for the expansion of a coal mine? That’s what happens when you try to rely on only wind and solar to power your electricity grid. It’s a case study we should learn from.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t build wind and solar farms, but we need to be realistic about meeting our energy needs with reliable baseload power. Germany has done well to reduce energy consumption from individuals, by insulating houses and other measures, but this has not made up for the energy lost from the nuclear power plants that were closed. We are an energy-rich species, and we are very good at finding new ways to use more energy. Energy conservation alone cannot get us to net zero.

Now back to the original problem: we have to reduce GHG emissions, and soon. Activists tell us that we only have a few years to do so. It seems ironic then that so many of them also often argue that nuclear energy shouldn’t be part of the mix.

The good news is that nuclear reactors have been built in only a few years in countries like South Korea, the United Arab Emirates, and France (the average construction time is 7 years for a reactor). The bad news is that the slow pace at which new nuclear sites are built in Britain is largely due to overregulation due to safety concerns of nuclear technology – a direct consequence of years of protests. Yet the greater danger – of climate change – looms large. While activists shout about nuclear waste (aka spent fuel), which is well-managed and has never harmed anyone, fossil fuel waste is being stored in the Earth’s atmosphere as we speak.

I often liken the misinformation about nuclear energy to that of anti-vaccine propaganda: both feed on people’s fears, rely on overblown worst-case-scenarios, and have a real impact on health and wellbeing. Both can also easily be dispelled by science, when the audience is willing to listen.

Consider the paper led by renowned climate scientist Dr James Hansen titled ‘Nuclear power saves lives’. In it, he and NASA scientist Pushker Kharecha calculate that nuclear power has prevented almost two million air-pollution-related deaths globally. That’s before we consider the impacts of climate change as well.

I’ll be covering all the above and more in detail in my talk, with references to the data so you can decide for yourself. All are welcome to attend and ask questions.

Zion Lights







2 responses to “What you think you know about decarbonisation is probably wrong”

  1. John Holloway avatar
    John Holloway

    I agree completely. I worked in research in the nuclear and energy industry for several years. The safety measures were obsessive (not a bad thing) and I would be quite happy to live next to a nuclear power station, because I know how tiny the risks are. There is no way on this earth that I would live anywhere near a hydrocarbon fuel depot, because I know how significant the risks are there. Think of Prince Rock in Plymouth, where 60,000 tons of petroleum products are stored just a few yards away from over a thousand tons of nitrate fertiliser. Combining those two would be catastrophic, and it is nothing short of insanity that the licences were granted allowing them to be side by side

  2. John Pope avatar
    John Pope

    “Green” sounds sort of nice and comforting for ill-informed voters fed up of the main political parties. Which is very dangerous because their manifesto contains a number of daft polices, the worst of which is perhaps their total opposition to nuclear. It was largely because the German coalition government relied on support of the Greens that Germany made their disastrous decision to close down perfectly usable nuclear power stations.
    In the UK the Lib-Dems has moved from opposition to nuclear to saying nothing – going in the right direction.

    What I always say to the “but nuclear waste is terrible” lobby is “has Sellafield given you much trouble recently?”. Followed by saying that I’m confident my grandchildren’s generation will find ways to improve nuclear waste handling, but I’m absolutely certain they will have no chance of fixing runaway climate change.

    I also find too many people saying that CC won’t affect the UK much -” just a couple of degrees warmer”. We import 60% of our food, much from countries whose agriculture is already being adversely affected by CC.

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