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Steve Bolter, Vice Chair GLD: The Case for Nuclear Energy

December 11, 2015 1:12 PM
By Steve Bolter

The problems of finding a fair and effective climate change deal go far beyond getting a deal that will last delegate's trips home and the next changes of Government.

Renewable energy is diffuse. Directly capturing solar energy requires large surface areas. We build buildings that intercept more solar energy than that would have fallen on their footprints. We use glazing, storage mass and insulation to better retain that solar energy in the buildings. We seed fields and plant woods to capture solar energy to synthesise food and timber. Bringing home wood and burning it enabled people to release solar energy stored during the tree's lifetime, thus effectively extending their homes' areas of energy capture, and also the time over which energy can be enjoyed.

As populations grew, communities found that they were drawing on local firewood faster than sunlight could replenish the tree stock. The wood was then supplemented by coal, that had stored the solar energy captured by generation upon generation of forests over millions of years. Industry set up where water and fossil fuel was readily available.

This is clearly unsustainable. Hence the start of the drive for the use of renewable energy sources. But we now recognise that the need to combat climate change by reducing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emission is even more urgent. This means we have to proceed along the critical path towards zero greenhouse gas emissions, which is not necessarily the same as that directly towards an ultimate aim of all energy use being renewable.

The critical paths to very low greenhouse gas emissions, for each nation, will be very different and the equitable share of greenhouse gas reduction will be different too.

The lines drawn round individual nations do not enclose degrees of development, or proportions of population to area, renewable energy and food growing potential, that are similar to each other or to the global average.

Clearly in absolute terms, the largest nations need to contribute the most to the reduction, which makes fractional reduction targets popular. But applying a uniform fraction (or percentage) is a lazy approach. Consider two nations of similar population and resource densities, one that, at base-time, had already invested in energy efficiency and low carbon energy, and one that had not bothered because it had an abundance low cost fossil fuel. The first would find further reduction much more challenging that the second.

Common per-capita emissions targets would allow underdeveloped nations to bring their standards of living up to "western" standards, provided they did so in an energy responsible way. But such targets would hit nations with a high population density and only diffuse wind and solar renewables available, but not much area over which to capture them, but be easily achieved by nations with low population density and/or abundant hydro-electric or accessible geothermal energy potential.

There is an energy source, ignored by much of the green movement, that, while not renewable, is lower carbon, cheaper and safer than all widely available renewables except onshore wind. That is the peaceful use of nuclear fission energy. It can help speed our way to an ultra-low carbon economy in places where the capture of sufficient renewable energy is difficult, leaving centuries to move to real renewables before nuclear resources run low or the volume nuclear waste is a problem.

Steve Bolter

Further Reading:

The measure used for quantifying the effect of an energy plant on climate change is lifetime carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse gas emissions per lifetime useful energy output .

When considering different energy sources, for assessing costs, is the amount one has to pay to get it built plus the greater network expenses for handling the degree of intermittency for that source. That would make nuclear cheaper than onshore wind too.

For assessing safety, (deaths / useful energy output) has been used, with due allowance for life shortening disease as well as instant deaths,.

The IPCC report on costs and carbon.
Article on deaths per useful energy output.

The "0.04" source was http://nextbigfuture.com/2011/03/deaths-per-twh-by-energy-source.html which has live links in it.

P. Bickel and R. Friedrich, Externalities of Energy, European Union Report EUR 21951, Luxembourg (2005).

A. J. Cohen et al., The global burden of disease due to outdoor air pollution, Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part A, 68: 1301-1307 (2005)

NAS, Hidden Costs of Energy: Unpriced Consequences of Energy Production and Use Committee on Health, Environmental, and Other External Costs and Benefits of Energy Production and Consumption; Nat. Res. Council, Wash., D.C. ISBN: 0-309-14641-0 (2010).

C. A. Pope et al., Lung cancer, cardiopulmonary mortality, and long-term exposure to fine particulate air pollution. Journal of the AMA, 287 (9): 1132-1141 (2002).

J. Scott et al., The Clean Air Act at 35, Environmental Defense, New York, www.environmentaldefense.org. (2005).

WHO, Health effects of chronic exposure to smoke from Biomass Fuel burning in rural areas, Chittaranjan National Cancer Institute (2007) cnci.academia.edu/1123846/