In his book Heat, George Monbiot rejects nuclear fission as a low-carbon source of electricity: arguing that it is unacceptably dangerous, and that we could make do without it. In a recent column on his website, he makes it clear that he has joined the ranks of those willing to reluctantly consider nuclear, on the simple grounds that he is so deeply concerned about climate change.
He does, however, have some conditions:
- Its total emissions – from mine to dump – are taken into account
- We know exactly how and where the waste is to be buried
- We know how much this will cost and who will pay
- There is a legal guarantee that no civil nuclear materials will be diverted for military purposes.
The first of these is important, but a fairly low hurdle. If there wasn’t good evidence that the life cycle emissions of nuclear are low (though they are not zero), it wouldn’t be getting the kind of attention it has been. The second matter is mostly a matter of not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) syndrome. Nobody wants a nuclear waste dump in their area, though everyone knows that a safe dump will basically resemble: a deep and well-sealed hole in some very geologically stable rock. The fourth requirement may be a reasonable bar for states with pre-existing nuclear weapons capability, but it is a bit much to expect from states that lack that capacity and face threatening neighbours. In all likelihood, more civilian nuclear power will mean more states with nuclear weapons, a few decades out.
The third issue is the most uncertain: the cost of nuclear power. Regrettably, no government out there actually has the spine to make polluters pay the true cost of their carbon dioxide emissions. Likewise, no government seems to be willing to forego the political opportunities involved in subsidizing technologies like nuclear fission and carbon capture and storage. In all probability, more nuclear will result in taxpayers and electricity consumers subsidizing the mistakes of governments and energy utilities. It may also produce a clunky, dangerous, and expensive infrastructure that was slower to come online and less effective than focusing on conservation, efficiency, and renewables would have been. All that being said, the inevitable costs may be justified as a precaution. If it does become brilliantly clear to the public that climate change requires urgent action – to the extent that people are willing to accept the rapid decommissioning of coal plants – having nuclear as an option might be an important way to facilitate the route forward. Given the risks of climate change, its low-carbon status may also be worth the inevitable accidents and contamination.
I admit that this is an issue where my thoughts remain divided. That being said, barring some big unforeseen change, I think we can definitely expect to see Canada’s nuclear reactors replaced with new ones, during the next few decades, at the very least. The post later today will provide some further thinking on the issue.