Nuclear Power in Context

Since its birth, nuclear power has been a target of environmental activism. To be fair, when nuclear power goes wrong, it goes wrong in a bad way. Take a look at what’s happening in Japan right now. Friday’s tsumani damaged the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, and several of its reactors have experienced partial meltdowns. Radiation from the nuclear reactions has been released into the surrounding environment, and could endanger public health in the immediate area, causing cancer and birth defects.

Nuclear disasters are horrifying, and this is by no means the worst that has happened. However, nuclear isn’t the only form of energy that experiences periodic disasters. In fact, over the past century, hydroelectric disasters have killed more people than all other forms of energy disasters combined.

(Sovacool et al, 2008, Fig. 1).

So why do we worry so much more about nuclear power disasters? Is it because the idea of the resulting radiation is more disturbing than the prospect of a dam breaking, even if it’s far less common?

However, an energy source can kill people without a large-scale disaster occurring. Let’s look at fossil fuels. Think of all the miners killed by coal accidents, all the people killed by smog inhalation or exposure to toxic chemicals (such as heavy metals) that are present in fossil fuels, deaths due to gas leaks, civilians killed by wars over oil, and so on. It’s difficult to quantify these numbers, because fossil fuels have been in use for centuries, but they clearly exceed the 4,000 or so deaths due to nuclear power accidents (as well as any other deaths due to nuclear power, such as uranium mining).

We must also look at the deaths due to climate change, which fossil fuel burning has induced. The World Health Organization estimates that over 150 000 people died as a result of climate change in 2000 alone. This annual rate will increase as the warming progresses. If we don’t step away from fossil fuels in time, they could lead to a devastating amount of death and suffering.

Fossil fuels are silent, passive, indirect killers which end up being far more destructive to human life than nuclear power. However, much of the public remains opposed to nuclear energy, and I believe this is a case of “letting perfect be the enemy of good”. I feel that we hold nuclear power to an impossible standard, that we expect it to be perfect. It’s certainly not perfect, but it’s far better than the existing system, which desperately needs to be replaced.

There are also exciting developments in nuclear technology that could make it safer and more efficient. In his recent book, top climatologist James Hansen described “fast reactors“, which are a vast improvement over the previous generations of nuclear reactors. It’s also possible to use uranium-238 as fuel, which makes up 99.3% of all natural uranium, and is usually thrown away as nuclear waste because reactors aren’t equipped to use it. Another alternative is to use thorium, a safer and more common element. If we pursue these technologies, the major downsides of nuclear power – safety and waste concerns – could diminish substantially.

Renewable sources of energy, such as solar, wind, and geothermal, are safer than nuclear power, and also have a lower carbon footprint per kWh (Sovacool, 2008b, Table 8). They are clearly the ideal choice in the long run, but they can’t solve the problem completely, at least not yet. Cost is a barrier, as is the problem of storing and transporting the electricity they generate. Maybe a few decades down the line smart grids will become a reality, and we will be able to have an energy economy that is fully renewable. If we wait for that perfect situation before doing anything, though, we will overshoot and cause far more climate change than we can deal with.

I don’t know if I would describe myself as “pro-nuclear”, but I am definitely “anti-fossil-fuel”. I am aware of the risks nuclear power poses, and feel that, from a risk management perspective, it is still preferable to coal and oil by a long shot. Solving climate change will require a multi-faceted energy economy, and it would be foolish to rule out one viable option simply because it isn’t perfect.

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Harmony: a New Way of Looking at our World

Even if you don’t have any intention of reading the new book by Prince Charles of Wales, it’s almost worth buying a copy just to admire it. Harmony: a New Way of Looking at our World is beautifully bound, with thick, glossy pages full of photographs that take you on a visual journey of the natural and architectural wonders of the world. Some, like the two-page spread of a humpback whale breaching, are joyful; others, such as the carcass of a young albatross, its digestive tract stuffed with plastic debris, are distressing.

The actual contents of the book were unique, but compelling. Rather than focusing on a particular issue and discussing it in depth, Prince Charles swept through just about every discipline you’d find in a modern university – agriculture, anthropology, architecture, art…and that’s only the A’s. This broad approach could easily have fallen into confusing disconnect, but he managed to connect each subject with what he referred to as a “golden thread”: a philosophical principle emphasizing the importance of following patterns seen in nature, and not trying to overwhelm or conquer it.

This approach is not really a “new way of looking at the world”, as the subtitle proclaims – in fact, it predates the dominant practice of Western society. For example, among indigenous civilizations that have modestly endured for many thousands of years, “not one…considers itself to be a master of creation”. Compare that to today’s industrialized society, which is only a few centuries old, and already views nature as a huge machine composed of independent parts which we can tweak at our will, rather than as a complex, dynamic system.

Prince Charles makes both emotional and scientific arguments to support his message, but he emphasizes the emotional ones first. I found this framing to be a turnoff, especially in the first chapter, which began, “This is a call to revolution. The Earth…is losing its balance and we humans are causing this to happen,” and continued from there. I couldn’t really take this narrative seriously, as I hadn’t yet heard his rational arguments, so the opening seemed far too dramatized. Perhaps others will find the initial appeals to emotion more effective than graphs and citations, but I was not impressed by them.

The meat of the book, however, was far better. Prince Charles explored a wide array of fascinating subjects that never managed to bore me. From the mathematical relationships found in the biosphere, to the importance of agricultural crop diversity in a changing climate, to the fascinating stream of engineering known as biomimicry, to the history of Islamic architecture…they may seem unrelated, but in fact all lead back to the importance of sustainability, in every sense of the word, and the incredible wisdom and beauty that can be found in nature.

The major flaw of Harmony, in my opinion, was the frequency of Prince Charles’ self-promotion. It seemed like nearly every second page contained a sentence similar to “(this particular problem) is very significant…and that is why I decided to start (some charity) to address it.” I think it’s wonderful that such a powerful and prolific figure is supporting projects for sustainability, but a better approach would have been to include an appendix of his charities at the end of the book. That way, the writing would have been less about him, and more about what he had to say.

There were also some obvious errors in the book, more serious than simple typos. 22 does not follow 13 in the Fibonacci Sequence, and the tilt of the Earth’s axis is not 24.5º (at least not at present). I expect these errors will be fixed in future editions.

The text’s discussion of climate change was fairly standard – think Al Gore’s slideshow, condensed into a few pages – but nonetheless very accurate and effective. There were some brief forays into paleoclimate which I enjoyed, too. Climate change was not the focus of this book, it was instead presented as a piece of a larger picture, but I appreciated the clarity with which it was addressed.

Although the scientific side of my mind is hyper-vigilant when I read nonfiction, I can relate to the deep affinity and spirituality people feel for the natural world. Nothing builds a sense of kinship like being out in the wilderness and recognizing how much smarter other species can be, in their own ways, than human beings. Nothing feels quite as healing as the quiet awe that strikes when a deer steps out onto the path ahead, or the joy and laughter that inevitably follow from watching songbirds. Nothing builds acceptance of the phenomenon of death like witnessing its omnipresence and necessity in any functioning ecosystem.

We could fill libraries with the economic, scientific, and health benefits of preserving nature in all its integrity. When it comes down to it, though, nature keeps us sane in the crazy world we have created for ourselves, and these emotional reasons are just as strong, if not stronger.