Nuclear Power Green
From the Globe and Mail newspaper, Canada:
Colour nuclear power green
As the world's leaders debate climate change this week
in The Hague, they must consider nuclear power,
says OECD secretary-general DONALD JOHNSTON
Thursday, November 16, 2000
The world is facing an energy crunch. Greenhouse gas emissions and global warming, combined with a growing population, are putting us on a fast track to frightening consequences. If we want sustainable development, we must solve our future energy needs without burning up the environment. For the moment, there's no serious discussion on how we are going to do this.
We need clear talking from politicians. Take nuclear energy: Discussion about nuclear power's future is overshadowed by growing skepticism about science and governments' capacity to protect the safety of citizens. Facts and sound scientific analysis seem all too often to be lost in a flood of misconceptions and fears. Can nuclear energy, properly harnessed, cover our future energy needs? We must at least examine its potential.
In my youth, nuclear energy was seen as a godsend for both the developed and the developing world, because fossil fuels were understood to have a finite life. Today, the atmosphere is being choked by greenhouse gas emissions, global temperatures are rising dramatically, and the world's population has more than doubled since 1955, with most people in the developing world living in poverty. Yet we seem to be denying ourselves the nuclear option that was seen over four decades ago as the way forward.
What happened to change public, and hence political, attitudes? Clearly, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl have had a major impact. The tendency of the nuclear industry to secrecy, probably inherited from national defence orientations, made things worse. Such is the influence of public opinion that the only OECD countries now planning new nuclear facilities are Japan and South Korea. Others, following Germany's lead, may opt to phase it out.
Yet the world finds itself on an unsustainable energy path that threatens to lead to catastrophe. Emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels increased seven-fold during the 20th century. Since 1900, temperatures have risen steeply, and the rate of increase has accelerated over the past 25 years. Current average temperatures are believed to be close to 0.80 C above normal. In the Antarctic, average temperatures have risen by 2.50 degrees over the past 25 years. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change believes that global temperatures could rise by as much as 6.10 degrees over this century.
We are witnesses to frequent extreme weather events, with concomitant loss of life. A severe ice storm in Northeastern America in 1998; a windstorm that ravaged much of France's forests last December, with 140,000 mature trees uprooted in just two Paris area parks; Britain and Italy hit by record rainfall and flooding.
Global warming means damage to ecosystems and biodiversity. Rising sea levels will render uninhabitable the world's low-lying seacoasts. Tropical diseases will spread. There is even serious concern that the Gulf Stream and the larger "conveyor belt" of ocean currents could come to an abrupt halt, plunging Europe into a new ice age . . . even while the rest of the world experiences warmer temperatures. If current trends continue, this could begin within the lifetime of our children.
Can we do something to turn around the situation? Yes, of course we -- that is, the developed, industrialized countries of the world -- can. Our populations have stabilized, and we are probably rich enough and smart enough to develop clean, safe energy technologies that can deliver our current level of material welfare while cutting emissions -- if we rise to the challenge. But there is a major obstacle to success: poverty and population growth in the rest of the world. According to the United Nations' latest projections, global population will increase by 50 per cent between now and 2150. Virtually all of that growth will occur outside the OECD area.
Globalization is paving the way for the emergence of a worldwide middle income class of 4 to 5 billion people, with the same aspirations for comfortable homes, a range of choice in foods and consumer products, and opportunities for education and travel that form the accoutrements of our modern civilization. But these all depend on one vital input: energy.
If the rest of the world were to have the current standard of living of the OECD area, energy production would have to increase by a factor of 30. No one expects such a jump to happen suddenly, but even if increased demand for energy happens gradually, how is it to be met? Can we actually envisage continuing to burn fossil fuels at the same rate over the next century?
Recently, I had the privilege of talking with two Nobel Prize-winning physicists, Burton Richter and Carlo Rubbia, about the future of nuclear energy. At our meeting and in a subsequent speech, Dr. Richter stated the challenge clearly. "It is our responsibility," he says, "both on ethical grounds and on grounds of self interest, to develop technologies that will allow the rest of the world to increase their standard of living without, at the same time, destroying the environment of the planet." He also expressed what he described as "bewilderment" at the opposition to nuclear power by the green movement.
There is, of course, concern about the health risks associated with nuclear energy, both in terms of functioning nuclear plants and in relation to the disposal of radioactive waste. But according to an article by a German group that Dr. Richter cites, the only energy sources less damaging in health terms than nuclear power are wind and solar.
As for waste disposal, he adds, "virtually all scientists would say that this is not a problem." Nuclear waste can be disposed of geologically, and international burial sites could be developed to handle the radioactive waste of the entire world without any difficulty. His conclusion: "No energy source is free from risk and a proper analysis has to balance risks and benefits. On such a balance, nuclear power comes out better than most."
Risks are an inherent part of decision-making in public policy. When we look at nuclear power, there are obvious ones, but compared to what alternatives? Are we to abandon it on the strength of a few accidents? Between 1918 and 1965, 42 major dam failures caused substantial loss of life. Did we stop building dams as a result? Did we abandon coal because of the high risks associated with coal mining? No. We worked at making technologies more reliable and safety measures stricter.
Those of us who do believe that the future has a constituency must prove it by urgent action. Ideally, a campaign should be led by political and civic leaders who have no vested interests in any particular energy option. There is certainly room for wind power and solar panels, but as contributors to basic energy needs they are likely to remain minuscule. To provide the City of Toronto with its current power needs, about 40,000 wind generators would be required, and they would cover an area three times the size of Prince Edward Island, or 5,656 square kilometres. We must also have a public education campaign to dispel myths and fears about nuclear energy.
The future of energy is not the future of any one part of the globe: It is
the future of the fragile planet Earth. To safeguard this future, we must mobilize
scientific expertise and material resources in support of accelerated energy
research in all areas. Let us together, from every corner of the global village,
join forces to ensure that our planet survives in a condition hospitable to
human life. That must be our promise to future generations.
Donald Johnston is secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.