Global Warming: Is Nuclear Power Green?

My concerns are nuclear waste disposal and the potential for terrorism. I think we need to de-centralize our sources of energy rather than concentrate them in a few huge power plants.

James Lovelock, an independent scientist and the creator of the Gaia hypothesis of the Earth as a self-regulating organism, says that civilisation is in imminent danger and nuclear power is the only green solution because we have no time to experiment with visionary energy sources.

What makes global warming so serious and so urgent is that the great Earth system, Gaia, is trapped in a vicious circle of positive feedback. Extra heat from any source, whether from greenhouse gases, the disappearance of Arctic ice or the Amazon forest, is amplified, and its effects are more than additive. It is almost as if we had lit a fire to keep warm, and failed to notice, as we piled on fuel, that the fire was out of control and the furniture had ignited. When that happens, little time is left to put out the fire before it consumes the house. Global warming, like a fire, is accelerating and almost no time is left to act.

So what should we do? We can just continue to enjoy a warmer 21st century while it lasts, and make cosmetic attempts, such as the Kyoto Treaty, to hide the political embarrassment of global warming, and this is what I fear will happen in much of the world. When, in the 18th century, only one billion people lived on Earth, their impact was small enough for it not to matter what energy source they used.

But with six billion, and growing, few options remain; 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. But we do not have 50 years; the Earth is already so disabled by the insidious poison of greenhouse gases that even if we stop all fossil fuel burning immediately, the consequences of what we have already done will last for 1,000 years. Every year that we continue burning carbon makes it worse for our descendants and for civilisation.

Worse still, if we burn crops grown for fuel this could hasten our decline. Agriculture already uses too much of the land needed by the Earth to regulate its climate and chemistry. A car consumes 10 to 30 times as much carbon as its driver; imagine the extra farmland required to feed the appetite of cars.

By all means, let us use the small input from renewables sensibly, but only one immediately available source does not cause global warming and that is nuclear energy. True, burning natural gas instead of coal or oil releases only half as much carbon dioxide, but unburnt gas is 25 times as potent a greenhouse agent as is carbon dioxide. Even a small leakage would neutralise the advantage of gas.

The prospects are grim, and even if we act successfully in amelioration, there will still be hard times, as in war, that will stretch our grandchildren to the limit. We are tough and it would take more than the climate catastrophe to eliminate all breeding pairs of humans; what is at risk is civilisation. As individual animals we are not so special, and in some ways are like a planetary disease, but through civilisation we redeem ourselves and become a precious asset for the Earth; not least because through our eyes the Earth has seen herself in all her glory.

There is a chance we may be saved by an unexpected event such as a series of volcanic eruptions severe enough to block out sunlight and so cool the Earth. But only losers would bet their lives on such poor odds. Whatever doubts there are about future climates, there are no doubts that greenhouse gases and temperatures both are rising.

We have stayed in ignorance for many reasons; important among them is the denial of climate change in the US where governments have failed to give their climate scientists the support they needed. The Green lobbies, which should have given priority to global warming, seem more concerned about threats to people than with threats to the Earth, not noticing that we are part of the Earth and wholly dependent upon its well being. It may take a disaster worse than last summer’s European deaths to wake us up.

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. We must stop fretting over the minute statistical risks of cancer from chemicals or radiation. Nearly one third of us will die of cancer anyway, mainly because we breathe air laden with that all pervasive carcinogen, oxygen. If we fail to concentrate our minds on the real danger, which is global warming, we may die even sooner, as did more than 20,000 unfortunates from overheating in Europe last summer.

I find it sad and ironic that the UK, which leads the world in the quality of its Earth and climate scientists, rejects their warnings and advice, and prefers to listen to the Greens. But I am a Green and I entreat my friends in the movement to drop their wrongheaded objection to nuclear energy.

Even if they were right about its dangers, and they are not, its worldwide use as our main source of energy would pose an insignificant threat compared with the dangers of intolerable and lethal heat waves and sea levels rising to drown every coastal city of the world. We have no time to experiment with visionary energy sources; civilisation is in imminent danger and has to use nuclear – the one safe, available, energy source – now or suffer the pain soon to be inflicted by our outraged planet.

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