A few weeks ago, Haydon Manning passed me an interesting book from the more dusty section of his shelf. It was called “Nuclear Power for Beginners“, and the edition I have was published in 1978. (If you do a bit of searching, you can still find old copies for purchase). If you’ve read this post from 2010: From nuclear sceptic to convert, you’ll know that Haydon was himself once anti-nuclear, but has since been convinced of the need for nuclear power. So I guess that when he bought this book, its contents aligned very much with his views (and those of the majority of environmentalists of the time). Like me, however, Haydon is now off the Christmas card list of Friends of the Earth!
Here is the book’s cover, freshly snapped from my iPhone (with the $2 price tag still clear):
Apparently, it was first published as “The Anti-Nuclear Handbook” but was then re-titled to fit with the popular “For Beginners” series. The cover says it all really — a death’s head in the word “Power”, the black and gloomy background vista, the corporate polluter with a nuclear power plant on his head, and the bright ALTERNATIVES! (with a happy, smiling sun).
It’s worth reading books like this to get a perspective on the roots of anti-nuclear activism, and to reflect on what, if anything, has changed. The best thing I can say about the book is that the format is great — cartoon books are terrific at explaining complex topics to a lay audience. (I also really like this series). Maybe I need to collaborate with an illustrator to write the new version…
The book covers all of the core anti-nuclear arguments — power plants are unsafe (and remember, this was published before Three Mile Island, Chernobyl or Fukushima — so they relied on Windscale, Chalk River, SL-1 etc. and good old speculation), nuclear waste is intractable, the risk of weapons proliferation is enormous and growing, fast breeder reactors just make everything worse (and are theoretical anyway), and so on. But it’s the conclusion that interests me in particular, especially in the context of the arguments being presented by commenters in the Energy debates in Wonderland thread.
A succinct summary of the core argument of the book is given on p46:
The objections to nuclear power are numerous… some can equally well be levelled at the other big-scale, centralised energy technologies like coal and oil… but what distinguishes nuclear power from all else is a word: RADIATION
There is a description of a meltdown on p51 (with the fuel inexorably melting through the reactor pressure vessel, leading to a steam explosion that bursts containment, “while the molten uranium burns down into the earth“), a discussion of the French approach, p52 (amazingly, they were talking about ‘core catchers’ even then — it’s not just an EPR thing!), and throughout, an unquestioning connection between radiation and the inevitable consequence of genetic defects + cancer. There is also a lot of space devoted to the argument that as the fuel cycle stretches around the world, the risk of sabotage and nuclear terrorism will become immense (this starts on p85), and that once the fissile material is available, the ‘do-it-yourself’ bomb kit( in an urban guerilla’s cellar) is but a few steps away.
I could go with a description of the contents, but that’s not really the purpose of this post. History can judge the veracity or otherwise of these sorts of arguments, and you can read through the archives of BraveNewClimate for refutations of all of these objections. What I want to look at here is how well the authors’ claims on the alternatives have held up. This thrust is introduced on p 102-103:
Saying ‘no’ to nukes means saying ‘yes’ to something else. Little would be won if it meant saying ‘yes’ to ferocious consumption of coal, oil & gas… their risks are well know [various damages then listed].
Here is another choice (these decisions are far too important to be left to the experts):
— Either we move on down the hard technology road towards a high-energy society in a nuclear age based on a plutonium economy…
— or, we take the soft energy path towards an equitable society based on ecological principles and an economy geared to people’s real needs…
Remember, this was 1978 — yet it all sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it? We’re still having these same debates today. Nothing has really changed. And the hard reality is, 32 years later, that coal, oil & gas HAVE won (so far).
[As a slight digression, I’ve always found the classic ‘libertarian’ view of nuclear power and ‘enviro-leftist’ view of renewables to be equally confusing. Nowhere in the world has nuclear power been built on a large scale without significant government co-support – actually, this seems to be true of ALL national electricity infrastructure, including coal (can anyone name any exceptions?).
Yet many free marketeers are strong supporters of nuclear power, whilst at the same time they dislike renewables and any subsidies given to them (including, of course, the carbon tax). Conversely, most people who argue passionately for the need for direct subsidies for renewable energy, carbon prices and mandated programmes for energy efficiency, also really dislike the fact that nuclear power has historically got similar type of support — and could continue to do so.
Why is this, I wonder?
I’m asking this question out of sincere interest, rather than try to say whether such ideas are inherently ‘good/bad’ or ‘right/wrong’ -– as BNC readers know, my evolved view is that whilst renewables are based on some fascinating technology, they remain essentially unable to support a large-scale move away from fossil fuels. Only a significant reliance on nuclear energy can permit this.
So I wonder if it ultimately comes down to a form of unavoidable ‘cultural cognition’, whereby nuclear power is generally equated to high energy density and industrialism/consumerism, whereas renewables is intuitively connected by many to natural landscapes and sunny/breezy environments.
Anyway, back to the book. The ALTERNATIVES! highlighted on the book’s cover, are naturally a reduction in energy use (conservation), anincrease in efficiency of use, and large-scale adoption of available renewable technologies, including solar PV, solar thermal and wind. Amory Lovins and his ‘soft energy pathways’ is quoted extensively (including his ‘fossil fuel bridge’, which should have apparently allowed renewables to gradually increase to about 40% of supply by the year 2000 and 100% by 2025).
In addition, some nations are held up as exemplars of the route we (the Western nations) should be taking:
China (p118): political and economic liberation, little foreign aid, many-sided development of industry and agriculture, emphasis on simple, small-scale technologies, no nuclear power, red revolution — union of peasant, factory worker and technician, more careful use of resources
Indeed, it’s called “The Benevolent Way” (p126) — “to promote the decentralisation of political and economic power, redistribution of wealth and the liberation of the individual… the struggle for a soft energy future must be linked with the struggle for political change“.
Question: Is this the China we see today?
So there we have it. We can reflect on why the soft energy path was not taken, and argue that this was because the concomitant socio-political shift didn’t happen (irrespective of whether you consider this pathway to be inherently good or bad). But again, I ask the question (trying here to take a completely apolitical position): if this shift failed to materialise in the past, why should we expect this to change in the future?
There is a cartoon on p129 that I’ll also reproduce:
What’s wrong with this? Well, the error of logic is that the scientist on the left is correct, and the one on the right is wrong. The problems of nuclear waste disposal are social and political, NOT technical. So there are no double standards here. Again and again, these issues are being confused.
Finally, to the appendix — which is all about the great potential of those ALTERNATIVE! energy systems.
On flat-plate solar collectors, they say “now they are in great demand in the US, where sales are trebling annually”.
Solar cells turn sunshine into electricity. They are still extremely expensive but a major cost breakthrough is said to be imminent. In the US, government and private capital is being poured into solar cell technology, which lends itself to monopoly.
The same can said of solar [thermal] power towers, electric energy systems now being built in Sicily, France, Spain and the US. Ground mirrors provide the heat to turn a steam turbine in the tower….
British studies suggest that unit-for-unit windpower’s total cost is one-third that of nuclear power…
There are the descriptions of the 240 MWe La Rance tidal power system (presumably as an icon of things to come…?), the fact that ocean wave power (“under development in Britain, Japan and Scandinavia“) could supply 70,000 million killowatt hours of electricity in Norway — the nation’s annual consumption (the reality check is here and here); plus ocean thermal units exploiting the difference in temperatures between the surface and deep waters (so sorry Lovelock and Rance, nothing is really new under the sun). Oh, and don’t forget the huge potential of biofuels, methane digesters, geo-thermal energy and heat pumps, and so on. Surely, with all this potential, in 1978…
I sigh. It’s all so eerily familiar. The renewables dream of the 1970s are the same dreams of 2010s. All these ALTERNATIVE! technologies were ‘on the cusp’ of a breakthrough… and still are. Meanwhile, for 32 years and counting, many well-intentioned folk continue to block nuclear power, and the Earth’s environment goes to hell in a hand basket. Meanwhile, we burn more and more fossil fuels. Little really was won.
Footnote: There is a table on p164 of uranium reserves. Yield for global reserves at <$80/kg was 590,000 tonnes in 1978. For resources available at >$80/kg, the total estimate was 1,510,000 tonnes. The argument, presumably, was to show that there was not much uranium available anyway. Now fast forward to 2010. On that point, I rest my case…