Published in the Telegraph-Journal 26th October 2012
We are faced with a number of choices over how power is produced. Fossil fuels are known to have a comprehensive and pervasive impact on the environment, including air pollution and acid rain. At the point of extraction, fossil fuels can have a substantial landscape impact (tar sands, coal mines, shale gas wellhead fields). Of the range of fossil fuels, natural gas has the lowest environmental impact. Fossil fuels are also ready to use.
Wind power has diffuse landscape impacts (wind farms) but questions about the effects of windmill operation have emerged and are now being studied Tidal power has relatively less environmental impact although research has not yet determined the effects of power generation technology on marine life. Solar power has a light environmental footprint but requires substantial land coverage to generate sufficient power. Wind, tidal and solar power sources currently are also more expensive than power generated by fossil fuels, although medium- and long-term research and development is expected to address this shortcoming. Each method of generating power has its shortcomings, critics and opponents.
Generally, no-one wants a source of power generation to occupy their property. In a not-in-my-backyard way, none of these options is acceptable and none of them is desirable. This also means that we have found ways to say no to everything. And it is particularly problematic that we have now said no to nuclear power at a time when we need it most.
In the heated discussions over how coal, tar sands oil and shale gas contribute too much to global warming to justify their use, nuclear power increasingly is being left out of the equation. The operating assumption in some quarters is that the days when nuclear power generation was a prominent component of the national energy portfolio are now long gone.
An obvious reason for this recent loss of confidence in nuclear power is the recent failure of Japan’s Fukushima facilities in 2011 and extends to the impact of earlier system failures at Chernobyl, Browns Ferry and Three Mile Island. Opposition is also in response to the culture of secrecy and inscrutability surrounding nuclear facilities as much as the Fukushima event.
It may be possible to replace power generation from all current sources with renewable energy. But doing so would take longer and cost significantly more than if we were to sustain nuclear power as part of the mix. The goal of replacing coal, oil and gas sources with renewables in the same timeframe to prevent runaway warming may be an almost insuperable one. Achieving this goal while replacing nuclear power may be impossible.
As a consequence of terminating its nuclear program in response to environmentalist demands, Germany will produce an additional 300 million tonnes of carbon dioxide between now and 2020, nearly as much as the European savings resulting from the energy efficiency directive combined. This is despite Germany’s efforts at efficiency improvements and new investment in renewables. A similar situation is emerging in Japan as it switches from low-carbon nuclear power generation to coal and LNG. Other countries are now headed down the same path.
It may be that no options for generating power are good ones. Since Fukushima, the number of those who oppose nuclear power has risen dramatically. But if the world’s nuclear plants that are shut down are not replaced by more nuclear power, the power gap will almost certainly be filled by coal and gas, substantially increasing greenhouse gas emissions.
There is general agreement that the world should dramatically reduce its total energy use. Currently it is unclear whether the conservation objective is to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels or to assist in the elimination of our reliance on nuclear power. In an age that increasingly is characterized by saying no to everything, it is difficult to see how we can simultaneously achieve both objectives.