Global warming and nuclear power
While we’re on the subject of climate change, I ran across a statement made by James Lovelock, described as a “celebrated Green guru“, that “only nuclear power can now halt global warming”. The core point is
He now believes recent climatic events have shown the warming of the atmosphere is proceeding even more rapidly than the scientists of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) thought it would, in their last report in 2001.
On that basis, he says, there is simply not enough time for renewable energy, such as wind, wave and solar power – the favoured solution of the Green movement – to take the place of the coal, gas and oil-fired power stations whose waste gas, carbon dioxide (CO2), is causing the atmosphere to warm.
I agree with Lovelock’s analysis up to a point, but there is a big problem that he has overlooked.
Nuclear (fission) power is probably the cheapest large-scale alternative electricity source (there are some sites where wind is cost-competitive, and similarly for geothermal) but it is still a good deal more expensive than coal or gas. How much more expensive is hard to tell because the industry is riddled with subsidies, but I’d guess that the full economic cost is about twice as high for nuclear electricity as for coal or gas. Moreover, most recent construction has been in places like China and Korea where safety standards may not be as high as they would have to be to get nuclear energy restarted in the developed world as a whole.
What this means is that nuclear power won’t enter into calculations until we have a carbon tax (or equivalent) steep enough to double the price of electricity. It’s clear though, that much smaller increases in costs would make a wide range of energy conservation measures economically viable, as well as reducing final demand for energy services. Implementing Kyoto, for example, would not require anything like a doubling of prices. Whether or not a more radical response is justified, it’s clearly not going to happen for at least a decade and probably longer.
Nevertheless, if mainstream projections of climate change turn out to be correct, and especially if, as Lovelock suggests, they turn out to be conservative, we’ll eventually face the need for new sources of electricity to replace fossil fuels. Solar photovoltaics are improving fast but still a long way from being cost-competitive. So it may well be that, at least for an interim period, expansion of nuclear fission is the best way to go.
fn1. I’ve never been a fan of gurus in general, and I think Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis is an illustration of the anthropic fallacy, but I’ll let that pass.