It’s time for environmentalists to give nuclear a fair go

This is an article by me and Corey Bradshaw, published today in The Conversation. I’m republishing it here.


Should nuclear energy be part of Australia’s (and many other countries’) future energy mix? We think so, particularly as part of a solution to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prevent dangerous climate change.

Is the future of biodiversity conservation nuclear?

Is the future of biodiversity conservation nuclear?

But there are other reasons for supporting nuclear technology. In a paper recently published in Conservation Biology, we show that an energy mix including nuclear power has lowest impact on wildlife and ecosystems — which is what we need given the dire state of the world’s biodiversity.

 

In response, we have gathered signatures of 66 leading conservation scientists from 14 countries in an open letter asking that the environmental community:

weigh up the pros and cons of different energy sources using objective evidence and pragmatic trade-offs, rather than simply relying on idealistic perceptions of what is ‘green’.

Energy demand is rising

Modern society is a ceaseless consumer of energy, and growing demand won’t stop any time soon, even under the most optimistic energy-efficiency scenario.

Although it goes without saying that we must continue to improve energy efficiency in the developed world, the momentum of population growth and rising living standards, particularly in the developing world, means we will continue to need more energy for decades to come. No amount of wishful thinking for reduced demand will change that.

But which are the best forms of energy to supply the world, and not add to the biodiversity crisis?

Assessing our energy options

In short, the argument goes like this.

To avoid the worst ravages of climate change, we have to decarbonise fully (eliminate net carbon emissions from) the global electricity sector. Wildlife and ecosystems are threatened by this climate disruption, largely caused by fossil-fuel derived emissions.

But they are also imperilled by land transformation (i.e., habitat loss) caused in part by other energy sources, such as flooded areas (usually forests) for hydro-electricity and all the associated road development this entails, agricultural areas needed for biofuels, and large spaces needed for wind and solar farms.

Energy density of different fuels. This infographic shows the amount of energy embodied in uranium, coal, natural gas and a chemical battery, scaled to provide enough energy for a lifetime of use in the developed world. Shown are the amount of each source needed to provide same amount of energy, equivalent to 220 kWh of energy per day for 80 years.

In the paper, we evaluated land use, emissions, climate and cost implications of three different energy scenarios:

 

  • a “business as usual” future dominated by fossil fuels
  • a high renewable-energy mix excluding nuclear promoted by Greenpeace
  • an energy mix with a large nuclear contribution (50% of energy mix) plus a balance of renewable and fossil-fuel sources with carbon-capture-and-storage.

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An Open Letter to Environmentalists on Nuclear Energy

Professor Barry W. Brook, Chair of Environmental Sustainability, University of Tasmania, Australia. barry.brook@utas.edu.au

Professor Corey J.A. Bradshaw, Sir Hubert Wilkins Chair of Climate Change, The Environment Institute, The University of Adelaide, Australia. corey.bradshaw@adelaide.edu.au


An Open Letter to Environmentalists:

As conservation scientists concerned with global depletion of biodiversity and the degradation of the human life-support system this entails, we, the co-signed, support the broad conclusions drawn in the article Key role for nuclear energy in global biodiversity conservation published in Conservation Biology (Brook & Bradshaw 2014).

Brook and Bradshaw argue that the full gamut of electricity-generation sources—including nuclear power—must be deployed to replace the burning of fossil fuels, if we are to have any chance of mitigating severe climate change. They provide strong evidence for the need to accept a substantial role for advanced nuclear power systems with complete fuel recycling—as part of a range of sustainable energy technologies that also includes appropriate use of renewables, energy storage and energy efficiency. This multi-pronged strategy for sustainable energy could also be more cost-effective and spare more land for biodiversity, as well as reduce non-carbon pollution (aerosols, heavy metals).

Given the historical antagonism towards nuclear energy amongst the environmental community, we accept that this stands as a controversial position. However, much as leading climate scientists have recently advocated the development of safe, next-generation nuclear energy systems to combat global climate change (Caldeira et al. 2013), we entreat the conservation and environmental community to weigh up the pros and cons of different energy sources using objective evidence and pragmatic trade-offs, rather than simply relying on idealistic perceptions of what is ‘green’.

Although renewable energy sources like wind and solar will likely make increasing contributions to future energy production, these technology options face real-world problems of scalability, cost, material and land use, meaning that it is too risky to rely on them as the only alternatives to fossil fuels. Nuclear power—being by far the most compact and energy-dense of sources—could also make a major, and perhaps leading, contribution. As scientists, we declare that an evidence-based approach to future energy production is an essential component of securing biodiversity’s future and cannot be ignored. It is time that conservationists make their voices heard in this policy arena.

Signatories (in alphabetical order)

  1. Professor Andrew Balmford, Professor of Conservation Science, Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom. apb12@cam.ac.uk
  1. Professor Andrew J. Beattie, Emeritus, Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, Australia. abeattie@bio.mq.edu.au
  1. Assistant Professor David P. Bickford, Department of Biological Sciences, National University of Singapore, Singapore. dbsbdp@nus.edu.sg
  1. Professor Tim M. Blackburn, Professor of Invasion Biology, Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment, Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research, University College London, United Kingdom. t.blackburn@ucl.ac.uk
  1. Professor Daniel T. Blumstein, Chair, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California Los Angeles, USA. marmots@ucla.edu
  1. Professor Luigi Boitani, Dipartimento di Biologia, e Biotecnologie Charles Darwin, Sapienza Università di Roma, Italy. luigi.boitani@uniroma1.it
  1. Professor Mark S. Boyce, Professor and Alberta Conservation Association Chair in Fisheries and Wildlife, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alberta, Canada. boyce@ualberta.ca
  1. Professor David M.J.S. Bowman, Professor of Environmental Change Biology, School of Biological Sciences, University of Tasmania, Australia. david.bowman@utas.edu.au
  1. Professor Scott P. Carroll, Institute for Contemporary Evolution and Department of Entomology and Nematology, University of California Davis, USA. spcarroll@ucdavis.edu
  1. Associate Professor Phillip Cassey, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Adelaide, Australia.
  1. Professor Stuart Chapin III, Professor Emeritus of Ecology, Department of Biology and Wildlife, Institute of Arctic Biology, University of Alaska Fairbanks, USA. terry.chapin@alaska.edu
  1. Professor David Choquenot, Director, Institute for Applied Ecology, University of Canberra, Australia. david.choquenot@canberra.edu.au
  1. Dr Ben Collen, Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research, University College London, United Kingdom. b.collen@ucl.ac.uk
  1. Professor Richard T. Corlett, Director, Centre for Integrative Conservation, Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, Chinese Academy of Sciences, China. corlett@xtbg.org.cn
  1. Dr Franck Courchamp, Director of Research, Laboratoire Ecologie, Systématique et Evolution – UMR CNRS, Member of the European Academy of Sciences, Université Paris-Sud, France. franck.courchamp@u-psud.fr
  1. Professor Chris B. Daniels, Director, Barbara Hardy Institute, University of South Australia, Australia. chris.daniels@unisa.edu.au
  1. Professor Chris Dickman, Professor of Ecology, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Sydney, Australia. chris.dickman@sydney.edu.au
  1. Associate Professor Don Driscoll, College of Medicine, Biology and Environment, The Australian National University, Australia. don.driscoll@anu.edu.au
  1. Professor David Dudgeon, Chair Professor of Ecology and Biodiversity, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong SAR, China. ddudgeon@hku.hk
  1. Associate Professor Erle C. Ellis, Geography and Environmental Systems, University of Maryland, USA. ece@umbc.edu
  1. Dr Damien A. Fordham, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Adelaide, Australia. damien.fordham@adelaide.edu.au
  1. Dr Eddie Game, Senior Scientist, The Nature Conservancy Worldwide Office, Australia. egame@tnc.org
  1. Professor Kevin J. Gaston, Professor of Biodiversity and Conservation, Director, Environment and Sustainability Institute, University of Exeter, United Kingdom. k.j.gaston@exeter.ac.uk
  1. Professor Dr Jaboury Ghazoul, Professor of Ecosystem Management, ETH Zürich, Institute for Terrestrial Ecosystems, Switzerland. jaboury.ghazoul@env.ethz.ch
  1. Professor Robert G. Harcourt, Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, Australia. robert.harcourt@mq.edu.au
  1. Professor Susan P. Harrison, Department of Environmental Science and Policy, University of California Davis, USA. spharrison@ucdavis.edu
  1. Professor Fangliang He, Canada Research Chair in Biodiversity and Landscape Modelling, Department of Renewable Resources, University of Alberta, Canada and State Key Laboratory of Biocontrol and School of Life Sciences, Sun-yat Sen University, Guangzhou, China. fhe@ualberta.ca
  1. Professor Mark A. Hindell, Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania, Australia. mark.hindell@utas.edu.au
  1. Professor Richard J. Hobbs, School of Plant Biology, The University of Western Australia, Australia. richard.hobbs@uwa.edu.au
  1. Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Professor and Director, Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland, Australia. oveh@uq.edu.au
  1. Professor Marcel Holyoak, Department of Environmental Science and Policy, University of California, Davis, USA. maholyoak@ucdavis.edu
  1. Professor Lesley Hughes, Distinguished Professor, Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, Australia. lesley.hughes@mq.edu.au
  1. Professor Christopher N. Johnson, Department of Zoology, University of Tasmania, Australia. c.n.johnson@utas.edu.au
  1. Dr Julia P.G. Jones, Senior Lecturer in Conservation Biology, School of Environment, Natural Resources and Geography, Bangor University, United Kingdom. julia.jones@bangor.ac.uk
  1. Professor Kate E. Jones, Biodiversity Modelling Research Group, University College London, United Kingdom. kate.e.jones@ucl.ac.uk
  1. Dr Lucas Joppa, Conservation Biologist, United Kingdom. lujoppa@microsoft.com
  1. Associate Professor Lian Pin Koh, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Adelaide, Australia. lianpin.koh@adelaide.edu.au
  1. Professor Charles J. Krebs, Emeritus, Department of Zoology, University of British Columbia, Canada. krebs@zoology.ubc.ca
  1. Dr Robert C. Lacy, Conservation Biologist, USA. rlacy@ix.netcom.com
  1. Associate Professor Susan Laurance, Centre for Tropical Biodiversity and Climate Change, Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Studies, James Cook University, Australia. susan.laurance@jcu.edu.au
  1. Professor William F. Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor and Australian Laureate, Prince Bernhard Chair in International Nature Conservation, Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science and School of Marine and Tropical Biology, James Cook University, Australia. bill.laurance@jcu.edu.au
  1. Professor Thomas E. Lovejoy, Senior Fellow at the United Nations Foundation and University Professor in the Environmental Science and Policy department, George Mason University, USA. tlovejoy@unfoundation.org
  1. Dr Antony J Lynam, Global Conservation Programs, Wildlife Conservation Society, USA. tlynam@wcs.org
  1. Professor Anson W. Mackay, Department of Geography, University College London, United Kingdom. ans.mackay@ucl.ac.uk
  1. Professor Helene D. Marsh, College of Marine and Environmental Sciences, Centre for Tropical Water and Aquatic Ecosystem Research, James Cook University, Australia. helene.marsh@jcu.edu.au
  1. Professor Michelle Marvier, Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences, Santa Clara University, USA. mmarvier@scu.edu
  1. Professor Lord Robert M. May of Oxford OM AC Kt FRS, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, United Kingdom. robert.may@zoo.ox.ac.uk
  1. Dr Margaret M. Mayfield, Director, The Ecology Centre, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Queensland, Australia. m.mayfield@uq.edu.au
  1. Dr Clive R. McMahon, Sydney Institute of Marine Science and Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania, Australia. clive.mcmahon@utas.edu.au
  1. Dr Mark Meekan, Marine Biologist, Australia. m.meekan@aims.gov.au
  1. Dr Erik Meijaard, Borneo Futures Project, People and Nature Consulting, Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia. emeijaard@gmail.com
  1. Professor Scott Mills, Chancellor’s Faculty Excellence Program in Global Environmental Change, North Carolina State University, USA. lsmills@ncsu.edu
  1. Professor Atte Moilanen, Research Director, Conservation Decision Analysis, University of Helsinki, Finland. atte.moilanen@helsinki.fi
  1. Professor Craig Moritz, Research School of Biology, The Australian National University, Australia. craig.moritz@anu.edu.au
  1. Dr Robin Naidoo, Adjunct Professor, Institute for Resources, Environment, and Sustainability University of British Columbia, Canada. robin.naidoo@wwfus.org
  1. Professor Reed F. Noss, Provost’s Distinguished Research Professor, University of Central Florida, USA. reed.noss@ucf.edu
  1. Associate Professor Julian D. Olden, Freshwater Ecology and Conservation Lab, School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, University of Washington, USA. e: olden@uw.edu
  1. Professor Maharaj Pandit, Professor and Head, Department of Environmental Studies, University of Delhi, India. mkpandit@cismhe.org
  1. Professor Kenneth H. Pollock, Professor of Applied Ecology, Biomathematics and Statistics, Department of Applied Ecology, North Carolina State University, USA. pollock@ncsu.edu
  1. Professor Hugh P. Possingham, School of Biological Science and School of Maths and Physics, The University of Queensland, Australia. h.possingham@uq.edu.au
  1. Professor Peter H. Raven, George Engelmann Professor of Botany Emeritus, President Emeritus, Missouri Botanical Garden, Washington University in St. Louis, USA. peter.raven@mobot.org
  1. Professor David M. Richardson, Distinguished Professor and Director of the Centre for Invasion Biology, Department of Botany and Zoology, Stellenbosch University, South Africa. rich@sun.ac.za
  1. Dr Euan G. Ritchie, Senior Lecturer, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University, Australia. e.ritchie@deakin.edu.au
  1. Professor Terry L. Root, Senior Fellow, Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford University, USA. troot@stanford.edu
  1. Dr Çağan H. Şekercioğlu, Assistant Professor, Biology, University of Utah, USA and Doçent 2010, Biology/Ecology, Inter-university Council (UAK) of Turkey. c.s@utah.edu
  1. Associate Professor Douglas Sheil, Department of Ecology and Natural Resource Management, Norwegian University of Life Sciences, Norway. douglas.sheil@nmbu.no
  1. Professor Richard Shine AM FAA, Professor in Evolutionary Biology, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Sydney, Australia. rick.shine@sydney.edu.au
  1. Professor William J. Sutherland, Miriam Rothschild Professor of Conservation Biology, Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom. w.sutherland@zoo.cam.ac.uk
  1. Professor Chris D. Thomas, FRS, Department of Biology, University of York, United Kingdom. chris.thomas@york.ac.uk
  1. Professor Ross M. Thompson, Chair of Water Science, Institute of Applied Ecology, University of Canberra, Australia. ross.thompson@canberra.edu.au
  1. Professor Ian G. Warkentin, Environmental Science, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada. ian.warkentin@grenfell.mun.ca
  1. Professor Stephen E. Williams, Centre for Tropical Biodiversity and Climate Change, School of Marine and Tropical Biology, James Cook University, Australia. stephen.williams@jcu.edu.au
  1. Professor Kirk O. Winemiller, Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences and Interdisciplinary Program in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Texas A&M University, USA. k-winemiller@tamu.edu

Note: Affiliations of signatories are for identification purposes, and do not imply that their organizations have necessarily endorsed this letter.

References

Brook, B. W., and C. J. A. Bradshaw. 2014. Key role for nuclear energy in global biodiversity conservation. Conservation Biology doi:10.1111/cobi.12433.

Caldeira, K., K., Emmanuel, J. Hansen, and T. Wigley. 2013. An Open Letter to those influencing environmental policy but opposed to nuclear power. CNN. http://edition.cnn.com/2013/11/03/world/nuclear-energy-climate-change-scientists-letter (Accessed 14 March 2014).

Nuclear power to do the heavy lifting in reducing China’s greenhouse gas emissions

Guest Post by Martin Nicholson. Martin studied mathematics, engineering and electrical sciences at Cambridge University in the UK and graduated with a Masters degree in 1974. He published a peer-reviewed book on low-carbon energy systems in 2012The Power Makers’ Challenge: and the need for Fission Energy


On November 12, 2014, China and the United States agreed to new limits on carbon emissions starting in 2025. China’s President Xi Jinping agreed to peak CO2 emissions by 2030 and also promised to raise the share of zero-carbon energy to 20 percent of the country’s total. United States would cut its own emissions by more than a quarter by 2025.

This agreement makes perfect sense when you realise that according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), China and the US are the two biggest emitters of CO2 from energy production, contributing 42 percent of the world total in 2012. The top six countries make up 60 percent of the world total. IEA measures CO2 emissions in each country from fuel combustion only.

Source: IEA Key World Energy Statistics 2014.

According to the IPCC, CO2 emissions from energy production in 2004, primarily from burning coal, oil and gas, accounted for about 60 percent of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Countries can reduce their total GHG emissions significantly by switching to low-carbon energy sources made up of nuclear, hydro, biofuels and renewable energy (RE) including geothermal, solar and wind, then.

The table below shows the major energy sources in 2012. Coal, oil and gas are the largest contributors to GHG emissions but they also contributed 82 percent of total energy. Coal made up 30 percent, oil 31 percent and gas 21 percent. Biofuels made up 10 percent, nuclear and hydro 5 percent each, but RE only produced 1 percent of total energy. For the world to replace coal alone, low-carbon sources would need to produce 4000 million tonnes of oil equivalent (Mtoe) of energy annually.

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The Catch-22 of Energy Storage

Pick up a research paper on battery technology, fuel cells, energy storage technologies or any of the advanced materials science used in these fields, and you will likely find somewhere in the introductory paragraphs a throwaway line about its application to the storage of renewable energy.  Energy storage makes sense for enabling a transition away from fossil fuels to more intermittent sources like wind and solar, and the storage problem presents a meaningful challenge for chemists and materials scientists… Or does it?


Guest Post by John Morgan. John is Chief Scientist at a Sydney startup developing smart grid and grid scale energy storage technologies.  He is Adjunct Professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at RMIT, holds a PhD in Physical Chemistry, and is an experienced industrial R&D leader.  You can follow John on twitter at @JohnDPMorganFirst published in Chemistry in Australia.


Several recent analyses of the inputs to our energy systems indicate that, against expectations, energy storage cannot solve the problem of intermittency of wind or solar power.  Not for reasons of technical performance, cost, or storage capacity, but for something more intractable: there is not enough surplus energy left over after construction of the generators and the storage system to power our present civilization.

The problem is analysed in an important paper by Weißbach et al.1 in terms of energy returned on energy invested, or EROEI – the ratio of the energy produced over the life of a power plant to the energy that was required to build it.  It takes energy to make a power plant – to manufacture its components, mine the fuel, and so on.  The power plant needs to make at least this much energy to break even.  A break-even powerplant has an EROEI of 1.  But such a plant would pointless, as there is no energy surplus to do the useful things we use energy for.

There is a minimum EROEI, greater than 1, that is required for an energy source to be able to run society.  An energy system must produce a surplus large enough to sustain things like food production, hospitals, and universities to train the engineers to build the plant, transport, construction, and all the elements of the civilization in which it is embedded.

For countries like the US and Germany, Weißbach et al. estimate this minimum viable EROEI to be about 7.  An energy source with lower EROEI cannot sustain a society at those levels of complexity, structured along similar lines.  If we are to transform our energy system, in particular to one without climate impacts, we need to pay close attention to the EROEI of the end result.

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An open letter to the ABC about Catalyst’s latest Fukushima piece

Mark Horstman travels to Fukushima Prefecture in Japan to investigate where the radioactive fallout has travelled since the Daichi nuclear power plant accident over three years ago.

This was the profile of a recent ABC Catalyst documentary investigation on the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear event. You can watch the 17 min report here.

Below is a critical reply by Geoff Russell, framed as an Open Letter. Comments welcome below — and write to ABC if this motivates you!

An open letter to the ABC about Catalyst’s latest Fukushima piece

Geoff Russell, August 2014

Dear ABC,

Can anybody imagine ABC’s Alan Kohler without his graphs?

Can anybody imagine him leaving the units of measurements off his axes? Instead of ‘$’s, ‘percent’s or something similarly meaningful, what if he started labelling his X or Y axis as ‘wiggles’ or ‘puds’. I’d reckon the ABC would get more than a few complaints.

So why can Catalyst’s Mark Horstman cite radiation units, which are about as meaningful as ‘wiggles’ to most of the population, without explaining what they mean? Isn’t explaining stuff what science communication is all about?

Horstman recently presented a Radiation fallout Catalyst story about the long term radiation impacts of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdowns. He opens with a statment about forest areas having a radiation count of 7 micro Sieverts per hour (uSv/hr).

Horstman could have explained what 7 uSv/hr means. I’m sure he knows. But the closest we got to any kind of information about this level was his claim that 5 uSv/hr was “50 times the maximum dose rate considered safe for the general public”. Without information about how risk changes as the dose changes, this is vacuous at best and misleading at worst. Taking a teaspoon of wine a day may be safe, but what about half a glass a day? That’s 50 times more than a teaspoon, but does it matter? Does raising a safe dose by 50 times make it low risk, high risk, deadly, or perhaps even make it beneficial? Maybe 50 times safe is still just safe.

And Horstman didn’t even get the numbers right. Let’s go through it slowly. Horstman could have got the Catalyst graphics team to do a nice little image. I’ll rely on words.

First, let’s convert the hourly rate to an annual rate so we can compare it to normal background radiation, which averages about 2.4 milli Sieverts per year (mSv/year). Background radiation varies from place to place but usually ranges from 1 mSv/year to around 7 mSv/year. If you were to lay on one of Brazil’s black monazite beaches 24×7, you could get a hefty 800 mSv/year. So 5 micro Sieverts per hour (uSv/hour) is 5 x 24 x 365 = 43800 uSv/year and since there are 1000 micro Sieverts per milli Sievert, this is 43.8 mSv/year. Divide this by the global average background level of 2.4 mSv/year and you get 18.25. So 5 uSv/hour is 18 times the global average background radiation level. Is Horstman telling us that the global average background level is dangerous? If he is, he’s simply wrong. How wrong? The background level of radiation in Finland is 7 mSv/year, much higher than in the UK where it’s below 2 mSv/year, but the cancer rate in Finland is actually a little lower than the cancer rate in the UK. So it seems reasonable to regard the Finnish background radiation rate as safe. Then since 5 uSv/hour is about 6 times higher than the Finnish background rate, I’d say it’s only 6 times higher than a safe rate.

But Horstman’s arithmetic mistakes are a minor matter. Whether it’s 6 times or 50 times greater than something that’s safe doesn’t tell us anything at all about how safe it is.

Is there any evidence that a level of radiation 18 times the global average is dangerous? Not that I know of. But there is certainly quite good evidence that it is harmless.

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