The Sanctuary Voices Of Reason Series
Nuclear Energy – Not a Solution
by Jennifer Scarlott
Photo: by Julia Worcester.
Homo sapiens is in a bind. Homo sapiens post-industrialis is sometimes a little concerned about the mess he has made of the planet, but would like to clean it up without changing the consumptive practices that created the mess in the first place. Homo sapiens developus wants and needs to improve his standard of living, but is hard-pressed to figure out how to do so without adding to the carbon burden threatening to destroy the planet’s climate.
Enter Jeffrey Sachs, erstwhile knight of the free market and director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute. According to Sachs, the scale of the climate crisis is so severe, and the capacity of renewable energy sources to replace carbon-emitting sources so low, that the only alternative is to turn to nuclear energy. “We won’t meet the carbon targets if nuclear is taken off the table,” Sachs said at the May 2012 annual meeting of the Asian Development Bank in the Philippines. It is important to note that Sachs’ vision of holding the line on climate change means holding the global level of carbon emissions at 450 parts per million (ppm) in the atmosphere.
Achievement of the 450 ppm target, however, would not be a solution but a failure, since it would result in mean global temperature increases of more than 2 degrees Celsius, a disastrous scenario for planet Earth, due to the likelihood of fast feedback effects.
Western leaders continue to spin their wheels looking for panaceas to the climate crisis, and nuclear power is always there, with the seeming promise of limitless growth at no environmental cost. But as U.K. environmentalist and writer Jonathon Porritt said in response to Sachs’ demand for more nuclear power, “Nuclear power cannot possibly deliver – primarily for economic reasons. Nuclear reactors are massively expensive. They take a long time to build. And even when they’re up and running, they’re nothing like as reliable as the industry would have us believe.”
Sanctuary readers can explore the economics of nuclear power for themselves. The information is at your fingertips. Were the world to turn exclusively to nuclear power to meet its growing energy needs, a new plant would need to open every two weeks. And of course, even though nuclear plants are not carbon-emitters, enormous amounts of carbon must be burned to build and operate them.
The economic argument against nuclear power is open and shut. What the developed world must come to grips with is that a solution to the climate crisis and continued economic growth, are incompatible. Number one. Number two, what nearly every country in the world that continues to flirt with the seeming promise of the atom must face, is that the threat posed by nuclear power to the planet’s living systems should be considered as dangerous as that posed by climate change. The post-tsunami meltdowns at the Fukushima plant in Japan are ongoing. Radioactivity does not observe national borders. And in 2013, it is time to accept, once and for all, that there is no difference between the atom divided for energy, and the atom divided for war. As the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has stated, if nuclear power were used extensively to fight climate change, “the security threat would be colossal.”
Jennifer Scarlott is based in New York City and is Director, International Conservation Initiatives, Sanctuary Asia.
Further reading: Kudankulam Nuclear Plant Will Devastate Tamil Nadu Marine Life And Fisheries.
First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia Vol. XXXIII, No. 1, February 2013.