Saturday, November 20, 2010

Are anti-nukes environmentalists?

My view is the answer is no

green lobbyNuclear energy bloggers often refer to anti-nuclear activists as "green groups" and often use the term "environmentalists" in the same paragraph. In thinking about this, I have come to the conclusion that ant-nuclear activists are not environmentalists. A green lobbyist is not anti-nuclear. Here's why.

An environmental activists is worried about the future of the planet and the survival of the human species as well as all other manner of animals and plants. The number one challenge facing the planet is the threat of global warming. It follows that the only source of baseload electricity supply that does not release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases is nuclear energy.

Wind energy can mean more green house gases

Anti-nuclear groups, like Riverkeeper in New York, which wants to close the two reactors at Indian Point, says that wind is a reasonable substitute. This is a false claim. Because wind only blows some of the time, the balance of the replacement power would have to come from fossil powered plants – coal and natural gas.

Simple math suggests that replacing 2,000 MW of power might break out as 300 MW of wind, some of the time, and 1,700 MW of fossil power all of the time. A deficit of 300 MW for the time the wind isn't blowing will lead to brownouts and even blackouts for some parts of the New York metro area.

On the other hand, there is nothing stopping wind and solar energy developers from leveraging high voltage power lines supported by nuclear power plants. In fact, the areas just outside the security zones around nuclear power stations are often ideal locations for wind farms or solar arrays because they are not cluttered with residential or commercial/industrial uses.

Residuals management matters

coal-train Another thing that real environmentalists worry about is how to deal with reducing uncontrolled transport and fate of harmful pollutants. For instance, residuals from coal plants include soot, mercury, sulfur, nitrous oxides, and, CO2. Once these residuals are in the atmosphere, they remain uncontrolled forever. They cannot be collected and recycled later on or controlled in any way.

By comparison, the residuals from spent nuclear fuel, leaving aside the valuable energy potential its uranium, are controlled at the reactor. These radioactive residuals are stored in dry casks that have a minimum shelf life of 150 years. Eventually, they will be stored harmlessly in a geologic repository. Meanwhile, the uranium, and small amounts of plutonium in spent fuel, can and will be recycled to be used again to make carbon emission free electricity.

An environmentalist concerned about residuals management would look at these two energy systems and conclude that from the perspective to keeping harmful materials out of ecosystems, nuclear energy wins hands down.

Fossil fuel plants use the earth's atmosphere as a garbage dump imposing sickness and death on humans, animals, and plants. Nuclear energy reactors control all aspects of the fuel cycle containing useful materials to be recycled and safely storing residuals for eventual permanent disposal underground.

Logic suggests anti-nukes are not green

powerlinesSo, it follows that anti-nuclear activists are not environmentalists. Their position from the point of view of impact on the earth is illogical. Wind farms and solar energy, positioned as replacements for nuclear energy, actually results in more greenhouse gases because fossil plants are needed to keep regional electric grids stable and cost effective. Such advocacy is delusional.

Because of the variable natural variability of wind and solar, no one is going to build a new high voltage electric grid just to support them. Battery storage technologies are unlikely to make a difference without massive investments that will drive the cost of delivered electricity to uneconomic levels.

On the right track

It follows that people like Patrick Moore in the U.S. and his counterparts in the U.K. and other countries are on the right track and are environmentalists in the truest sense of the word. Their position advocates tried and true principles of controlling residuals, recycling useful materials, and generating energy for the benefit of all people while at the same time working to reduce the threat of global warming. See for instance Stewart brand's recent book Whole Earth Discipline for some additional wisdom on nuclear energy and "green issues."

right rack

Nuclear energy advocates must do more to make the case that it is an environmental choice. They must also make the case that if the U.S. fails to fulfill its role at as a technology leader in the global nuclear renaissance, that it will not be taken seriously in its efforts to stop rogue nations like Iran from developing weapons of mass destruction.

For instance, the development of mixed oxide fuel (MOX) takes weapons grade plutonium out of circulation forever. That's why the U.S. commitment to build a MOX fuel facility at Savannah River, SC, is an act that benefits the planet and future generations. It removes the threat of nuclear weapons.

What's almost bizarre is that some anti-nuclear groups, like Union of Concerned Scientists, on reflex oppose the MOX fuel plant and have energetically tried to stop construction of the facility. It seems that they'd rather satisfy their quest to stop all nuclear plants than see the secure removal of plutonium once embedded in nuclear weapons reused to make commercial electricity.

That's why people who advocate the development of nuclear energy are environmentalists. It is also why people who oppose it with religious fervor are not. This position may annoy or even enrage anti-nuclear activists. I understand they may not change their views as a result of reading this essay. Just don't call them environmentalists. Because they're not.

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15 comments:

Rod Adams said...

Dan - I concur. If you are truly an environmentalist, you have an open mind to learning more about any technology that has demonstrated its potential for making the environment cleaner and safer. I put people like Patrick Moore, Mark Lynas, James Lovelock, James Hansen, John Horgan and Stewart Brand into the category of people whose concern for the environment has led them to learning more about nuclear energy and finding out that much of what they were told was not true.

I put stubbornly adamant anti nuclear activists like Amory Lovins and Eric Pica into a completely different category of dangerously closed mined people who just might have monetary reasons for limiting the growth of nuclear energy.

Meredith Angwin said...

The "we'll have wind instead" is used against Vermont Yankee also. It is ridiculous, because wind is intermittent.

Also, in Vermont and many other beautiful regions, people have spent a lot of time and energy protecting the ridge lines against mansions, or too many cell towers, etc. Local residents want the hills to look a certain way...beautiful and wooded, with any houses hidden from view. No MacMansions up there, please! No castles on the peaks!

The people protecting the hilltops are public-spirited citizens who have served for years on various boards (zoning boards, select boards) in their towns. Wind developers come the area and tell these citizens ...if you object to US putting huge turbines up there, you are a bunch of NIMBYs that don't care about the environment.

Arrogance.

Brian Mays said...

Dan - Sorry, but I must disagree. Anti-nukes are very much Environmentalists. The mistake that you make is that you try to analyze their position rationally, when their beliefs can only be explained on the basis of faith.

I don't consider myself an Environmentalist any more than I consider myself to be a Catholic, a Jew, a Hindu, or a Muslim. Environmentalism is a religion, just as Catholicism, Judaism, and Hinduism are religions. As Michael Crichton noted in 2003, it is "one of the most powerful religions in the Western World" and "seems to be the religion of choice for urban atheists." He adds that, at its core, "environmentalism is in fact a perfect 21st century remapping of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths."

Nothing in Environmentalism is new or unique; man has been worshiping various aspects of nature for many millennia. The spirits are gone -- at least explicitly, since their names are no longer evoked when making sacrifices -- but the reverent awe of nature remains. Even their choice of Green for their branding device is not unique. Green is also the color of Islam.

When looked at this way, it is easy to see why there are so many inconsistencies within the movement and so little reliance on hard facts. Belief is all that is required to be an Environmentalist, not logic or reason.

Although many practitioners of this new religion are still in denial, preferring to think of their movement as grounded in "science" (it is not), some of the larger players, with deeper connections to the core of the movement, realize what Environmentalism really is and are willing to admit as such. For example, consider what Kenneth Brower, an Environmentalist with a pedigree as good as any, recently wrote in The Atlantic Monthly:

"Environmentalism does indeed make a very satisfactory kind of religion. It is the faith in which I myself was brought up. In my family, we had no other. My father, David Brower, the first executive director of the Sierra Club and the founder of Friends of the Earth, could confer no higher praise than 'He has the religion.' By this, my father meant that the person in question understood, felt the cause and the imperative of environmentalism in his or her bones."

This excerpt was part of a larger discussion to explain that his religion, Environmentalism, is different than the religion of famed physicist Freeman Dyson, who "worships the indomitable ingenuity of Man."

Thus, to return to your question, I must conclude that anti-nukes are Environmentalists -- at least as Kenneth Brower and I understand what that means -- while those in favor of nuclear power are adherents of the far more rational philosophy of Dysonism (to borrow a term from Brower). The key difference between the two is whether one believes that man and his ingenuity can (pragmatically) make a difference in the world or whether we are trapped in a world that is forever dominated by the gods of nature, in which everything that man does is evil and will be punished by quasi-divine retribution.

seth said...

While the gist of the article is spot on the example is bad.

The windy would argue that 2000 Mw avg of coal power could be replaced with 2000 MW avg of distributed wind power (entire Atlantic coast) ie 8000 Mw of nameplate capacity. This is the wind is always blowing somewhere canard.

Problem with that is the enormous cost of either storage or fossil fuel offline capacity needed for the large regional week or two no wind event and the enormous transmission cost.

Wind cost all things included is as a result a minimum of ten times nuclear.

The current small amounts of non regional wind plant results in greater fossil fuel use because of the needed load balancing with low efficiency fast spooling gas plant. Better, cheaper, less GHG and less natural gas sales to build slow spooling high efficiency CCGT plant instead.

Gwyneth Cravens said...

I discovered during my journey through the nuclear world that almost everyone I interviewed sincerely cared about the environment. Some were members of the Sierra Club or had dropped out of it after it went from pro to anti-nuke in the mid-70s. Many I met were outdoorsmen. Plenty were concerned about damage to the environment from fossil fuel extraction and combustion.

I consider those supporting nuclear power or working in the nuclear industry the true Greens (although some might be horrified to be called that!).

Good post, Dan.
Gwyneth

Caroline Webb said...

This discussion is essential to conduct and to place in front of all academic institutions that are teaching anything to do with Environmental Studies or Sustainability Studies. I would also like to see more articles in the mainstream press and magazine world. I look forward to the various films about nuclear power currently in preparation coming out and adding their particular strength to the discussion as well.

We definitely need new leadership amongst environmental organizations. As with corporations becoming more committed to cleaning up their business operations (see the recent news about Unilever's new resolve and directive to their global entities), once one big org decides to change course, the others will find themselves bound to follow. I hope. What will really work to change these groups is to lose membership, of course.

More celebrities are needed to stand up and support nuclear power on behalf of the environment - and also on behalf of development of better living standards in developing countries. At present, Enviros in the rich north think that all development should stop because of climate change fears. In my view this is a moral, intellectual, political and environmental dead-end. Only with more development (wisely planned and with much more eco awareness than hitherto) will the global environment be under less assault from humans, and population numbers begin to go down. Enviro activists should focus their energies on supporting ecologically benign development, including nuclear power, and very importantly, work much harder at stopping the decimation of species for private collectors and to supply superstitious medical/sexual potency traditions right across Asia/China. There is much for them to do - and spending their energies fighting nuclear energy is entirely the wrong thing for them to be doing if they are to deserve the title 'environmentalist.' They are barking up the wrong tree as we used to say when I was a kid! They are in GREAT need of an intellectual remodel.

Thanks for this article you have put out there and the opportunity to comment.

SteveK9 said...

Sounds like you agree with the comment I made to your Virginia Uranium post. Maybe we can start something.

david lewis said...

Moore doesn't accept the fundamental premise of your argument, i.e. that global warming is the number one problem. He doesn't even think it is a problem at all.

Moore says "global warming and nuclear energy are good". Here he is at a conference in Hawaii, where the headline reporting his appearance afterward said "Greenpeace co-founder praises global warming" http://web.archive.org/web/20060207170119/http://www.honoluluadvertiser.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20060113/BUSINESS11/601130327/1071
Scientists either don't know what they are talking about or can't prove what they say. Moore knows. He wrote the Royal Society, the oldest scientific organization in the word, and one of the most prestigious, and told them so. http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Greenpeace+co-founder+asks+UK%27s+Royal+Society+to+stop+playing...-a0151722594
You should call him up. He'll straighten you out. He only pretends he is taking global warming seriously at certain times when he is flogging nuclear power as the solution for it.

What is it with pro nuclear people and Patrick Moore? You think you are going to convince environmentalists who have been duped by anti-nuclear activists over the years into believing there is something wrong with nuclear power to accept nuclear power now by touting the "wisdom" of a man who rejects that there could even be the problem environmentalists are most concerned about?

Gunnar Littmarck said...

Hi and thanks for a great site.

I Wrote why I´m for nuclear power but also why the CO2-threat is political not scientific.
In Nuclear Townshall...

"I have long written about why nuclear power is the fastest way to global welfare and why CO2 threat can not be supported by a single scientific argument.

Only very stupid think that all of a sudden now show up reinforcing effects overcompensate T4 extreme water thermostat and CO2 molecule is strongly declining greenhouse effect.

With a soil that is 14.5 C everywhere, lit by the sun constantly, but with no CO2 in the atmosphere would suns could reduce its efficacy as follows:
At 150ppm 9W/sqm 280ppm additional 1.6 W / sqm and 400ppm additional 0.9 W / sqm.

Moreover, it is just so stupid to threaten heat when we are 2.5 C above the Earth’s absolute coldest temperature and 7.5 C below the temperature that had a life-friendly global environment.

http://www.geocraft.com/WVFossils/Carboniferous_climate.html

Average temperature is also somewhat stupid than average wind speed for wind energy, the energy of the wind increases with the velocity squared, but the beam energy development with the temperature raised to power of four.

Two equally inclined surfaces with 50C and -80C radiate as much energy as if both were 10C not -15C.
Therefore Sahara radiated less energy during the more life-friendly climate for the period 4000-7500 ago.

Then it was much warmer at the poles, which increased water turnover rate, steam energy moved from the surface to condensation altitude where the simpler radiates into space.

This leads to the retailer for more rain, the Sahara was cooler during the day and warmer at night, full of forests, but radiated less energy.

Anyone who is a nuclear physicist understand of course that the CO2 threat is political, lacks any scientific support.

It depends on strengthening of small temperature increases in excess of T4-water thermostat and CO2 molecules strongly diminished effect.

We have had 0,7C from 280-395ppm most of that have other explanations but even if all was from our fossil burning it will only give some tenth of C if so the hole world forbid nuclear power. No global climate catastrophe....

But nuclear power is now the cheapest and the most secure energy system there is.

China has reactors for under 1,8$/We.
Indian has start a thorium program with its second step is the fast breeder that feeds waste and breed U233 from Th232...

We will have electricity for "free" in some decades.

We don´t need to rely on the unscientific CO2-threat...

DocForesight said...

@Caroline - I believe Bob Hargraves posted a graph on Kirk Sorensen's energyfromthorium.com site that shows how family size stabilizes at a lower number with increased wealth per capita. If that is accurate, it would seem to be a force-multiplier for all concerned parties: more use of dense energy (nuclear) to produce electricity; desalination for fresh water to reduce water-borne diseases and increase agricultural production so malnutrition and food shortage is reduced; stabilize forests from indiscriminate clear-cutting thereby reducing erosion and flora/fauna habitat concerns; cleaner air from less smokestack emissions; increased economic activity so less poverty.

Wealthier nations generate and consume the most energy, so make more energy available for all.

Anonymous said...

I often refer to them as "environmentalists" but I always put the word in quotes (i.e., they are so-called environmentalists). I think it pretty much captures it. It's what they and many others think of as pro-environment, but it really isn't.

With respect to the notion of replacing Indian Point with wind farms, our argument is even stronger than you think. Even it were true that windfarms could replace the nuclear plant (i.e., imagine that they produced steady, reliable power), using a windfarm to replace a nuclear plant still constitutes a choice of fossil fuels over nuclear (an indefensible choice, from an environmental perspective).

If you can bring 2000 MW of wind power on line, why in the name of God would you choose to use it to replace 2000 MW of nuclear when there is an enormous amount of old, dirty fossil fuel generation in the region that could be replaced instead? No, until and unless virtually all fossil fuel generation in the region is retired, using renewables to replace (existing) nuclear constitutes an unconcionable choice of fossil fuels over nuclear.

Jim Hopf

Brian Mays said...

For those of you who don't yet realize that Environmentalism is some sort of fanatical cult, David Lewis's comment should provide an illuminating example.

In his criticism of Dr. Moore, he makes no substantive arguments based on science, evidence, reason, or even respect for independent thought. On the contrary, his entire damnation of the man centers on Moore's refusal to properly honor and uphold a sacred shibboleth. Thus, in David's mind, Moore is an outsider and always will be. It's a classic example of symbolism over substance.

You're never going to rebrand the term Environmentalist any more that you're going to rebrand Renewable to include nuclear power. You can toss around these terms within your own circle of friends as much as you want, but as far as the general public is concerned, the opposition already owns these terms, and they have a 40-year head start. If you're going to begin to toss around terms in ways that do not correspond with common usage, you might as well be speaking a foreign language.

The best that you're going to be able to do is to qualify these terms, so that the close-minded, old-school Environmentalists can be said to adhere to "Fundamentalist Environmentalism." That might work, but if you want my opinion, you could do much better.

By trying to own Environmentalist, you are giving it a veneer of respectability, which works against you. A much better strategy would be to abandon the term Environmentalist to the anti-nukes altogether. Let them own it and then use it as a weapon against them.

By highlighting the craziness of their ideas -- and there's much to highlight -- it is possible to transform the word Environmentalist to a term that is mostly used in a pejorative sense. At that point, you will have won the PR battle against the anti-nukes.

Chuck P said...

I think Nnadir sums this one up the best:
"There is no such thing as an anti-nuclear environmentalist"

Jason Ribeiro said...

Brian, you make some very good interesting points. Personally, I'm not willing to let anti-nuclear activists own the word 'environmentalist' as they don't deserve to own it anymore than anyone else does. There is no trademark on the word and I've always regarded it as someone who cares about the environment. Some do that better than others but in the case of anti-nuclear activists, they say they care about the environment yet make emotional choices that actually contribute towards its destruction thus that makes them hypocrites and intellectually challenged I might add.

Since there is a wide spectrum of environmentalists, I have tried (perhaps in vain) to explain and convince some of them why nuclear energy is environmentally friendly. As Rod Adams points out, there are some out there with an open mind who are willing to listen and actually do change their mind. Many I've spoken to are very surprised to hear such a different story about nuclear. It's all too easy for the layperson to hear nothing good about nuclear and simple adopt the second-hand ignorance of others as truth. There is a vast number of people who just haven't given it much thought and poo-poo nukes as "too costly" or "what about the waste?" without the slightest background knowledge. Some of those people are reachable, but the hardcore anti-nukes are not.

I believe there is a battle between the nukes and anti-nukes for the hearts and minds for the rest of us "lazy environmentalists". If you were to ask just about anyone if they care about the environment, most would answer yes. If you were to ask a follow up question "do you consider yourself then to be an environmentalist?", I'm sure many people would answer yes. Thus most people consider themselves to love nature and the outdoors. Fortunately not too many can think of a pro-active marketing campaign for nuclear energy so the slate is pretty clean. How then does nuclear energy make its case to the public that it's ok to be environmental and support nuclear? The opposition has done a better job at defining nuclear in the negative than nuclear has done at defining itself yet in spite of that support is climbing. That's encouraging but there's still a long way to go.

djysrv said...

SteveK9 gets a hat tip for suggesting the idea.