Saturday, 9 August 2014

Nuclear 2.0 by Mark Lynas - Why a green future needs nuclear power

An opinionated review

Since you are reading this you will almost certainly have your own views about the future role of nuclear power.  So did Mark Lynas!  In the Introduction to his book he says that he was a convinced anti-nuclear campaigner until, whilst attending a 2005 Oxford conference, he realised that nuclear power provided 15% of global electricity (2005 figures) and that this reduced CO2 emissions by 2 billion tonnes/year.  As a parent, concerned for his children’s future, he had overlooked the potential of nuclear power to ameliorate climate change. 
His short 100 page book seeks to justify his view that without replacing the energy generated from fossil fuels with nuclear power, as well as renewables, we have no chance of stopping the rapid increase of atmospheric CO2 before it’s too late to prevent runaway climate change.    In my opinion, he succeeds but then I’ve thought the same and written about it for some time, even if not so concisely and factually as Mark Lynas does.  In Chapter 7 he calls this strategy “All of the Above”. 

Now read on?
So if you are more concerned with the potential risk of an early death due to a nuclear power station accident than you are with reversing the rate of increase of discharges of CO2 from burning fossil fuels, you need read no further.  Equally those people, who like some of my acquaintances, prefer coal burning power stations with the certainty of the premature deaths that will result from cancer and respiratory diseases caused by particulate air pollution and are not concerned about their uncontrolled release of radiation into the environment  can stop here and write their comments.
Those who are less dogmatic and more pragmatic about where they stand on this highly emotional subject are recommended to read Mark Lynas’ fact packed book.  It’s well presented and well argued.  He supports many of his statements with references, a total of 95 references or explanatory notes for seven chapters, and if you read the ebook version the references are in the form of active links. 

Other reviewers and commentators
Other reviewers like Jonathon Porrit and Dr. Karl-Friedrich Lenz make no attempt to demolish his central argument or dispute his calculations in any quantitative way.  Jonathan Porritt offers a series of put downs without actually refuting any of the facts carefully referenced in the book.  He also advances the familiar qualititative arguments, based on faith, stating that we will see a reduction in the costs of renewable power sources and increases in efficiencies that will square the circle, and make everything come right.  He ignores the enormous areas of land that will need to be made available (see below) for any impact to be made on reducing the global rate of discharge of CO2 with renewables.  He also doesn’t believe that there is any problem of intermittency/energy storage.

Dr. Karl-Friedrich Lenz on the other hand, in a more tetchy review, concentrates on picking at this or that element in an attempt to discredit Mark Lynas, and support his own fixed views. Both are avoiding having to face the uncomfortable truths that Mark Lynas presents to those environmental activists, who like his earlier self, have campaigned against nuclear power all their lives. 
Some commentators have taken issue with Mark Lynas’s selective use of references concerning, for example, the health effects of radiation releases from Chernobyl and Fukushima.  Others disagree with his dismissal of the Linear No Threshold model for calculating expected early deaths from radiation exposure in chapter 4 pages 49-53.
In a short 100 page book it’s not possible to present fully balanced and detailed arguments for every subject area which it addresses and it’s inevitable that he would be accused of being selective.
All of these criticisms are peripheral to Mark Lynas’ main argument that to reduce discharges of CO2, and prevent runaway climate change, it’s necessary to retain nuclear power and also develop it, together with renewables.  I haven’t yet found a dissenting reviewer or commentator who argues against this fundamental assertion with realistic facts and figures.

In this short BBC video Mark Lynas introduces his ideas.

Energy conservation is not enough
In Chapter 2 pages 24–26 Mark Lynas deals briefly with the history of the environmental movement and discusses Amory Lovin’s and E.F. Schuhmacher’s 1970’s idealistic view that humans should use less energy.  As a result of their philosophy European and North American environmentalists often say that what will solve the climate change problem is more energy conservation and a change in people’s lifestyles. 
I agree that we all need to do more to save energy, but as Mark Lynas points out in chapter 2, even if we did it wouldn’t be enough to make a significant global impact.  It’s totally unrealistic to expect the populations of developed countries to adopt the lifestyle of their great great grandparents, to heat only one room in the house, to travel in horse drawn vehicles, to wash their clothes by hand and to harvest crops with scythes.  Even if everyone did so, it still wouldn’t address the energy needs of industry. 
Furthermore just saving energy in developed countries would not be enough to moderate global CO2 emissions because it takes absolutely no account of the energy expectations of the rapidly growing populations of developing countries who all want to improve their lives and have washing machines and fridges.  Western environmental campaigners will be hard pressed to persuade the inhabitants of such countries that they don’t have the right to enjoy the benefits of economic development and the energy consumption that goes with it.  Have a look at Hans Rosling’s “Washing Machine” TED talk on this subject because he’s so much more eloquent than me. I guarantee that it’s worth ten minutes of your life and it will change the way that you think about energy conservation!

The global growth of renewables
In spite of the recent massive global investment in renewable power in the form of wind and solar they still represent only a very small fraction of global energy consumption.  To paraphrase Mark Lynas in Chapter 2 pages 22 and 23,
“Solar’s meteoric 1200% growth over the last five years took it from producing 0.01% of global primary energy to 0.17%.  Wind, with its 200% growth went from providing 0.3% to 0.95% of global primary energy.”  Meanwhile, “between 2007 and 2012 coal added 7 times more to global primary energy than wind and 430 times more than solar.”
So the huge development of renewables in recent years, due to the encouragement given by subsidized buy-in tariffs for the energy generated, has failed to outpace the building of coal and more recently gas fired power stations.

The German experiment
In chapter 2 page 58 Mark Lynas refers to the German experiment. 
We tend to forget that more than 20,000 people died in the Japanese tsunami in 2011, because the world was gripped by the dramatic events and subsequent release of radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.  As a direct result Germany decided on a policy of Energiewende (Energy Shift) to replace nuclear power with renewable energy.  Two years down the road, however, in spite of successfully installing major wind and solar power developments, these have not replaced all of the power generated by the nuclear plants that have been closed.  Germany has meanwhile opened two new 1,100MW  brown coal burning power plants at Neurath, and in 2012 they were importing more coal and gas than in 2011.  Furthermore they were forecast to add another 4GW of coal fired electricity to the grid in 2013.
This year (2014) Angela Merkel’s  Energy and Economics Minister (he has both portfolios) Sigmar Gabriel, has stated that the Energiewende  is on the verge of failure due to the ongoing cost of subsidised green electricity buy-in tariffs. 
So if you make replacing nuclear power with renewables your first priority, it’s just completely unrealistic to expect to lower the burning of fossil fuels at the same time.  But when you are capable of ignoring the figures and simply sticking to dogmatic orthodoxy, then anything can seem possible.

The real result of decades of anti-nuclear campaigning
In Chapter 3 Mark Lynas makes the case that, partly as a result of highly successful campaigning against new nuclear power stations by activists since the 1970’s, the burning of coal was guaranteed to grow in the decades that followed, as country after country cancelled their nuclear power programmes.
In Chapter 4 page 56, he quotes a 2013 paper in which “Hansen and Kharecha calculate that the use of nuclear power between 1971 and 2009 avoided the premature deaths of 1.84 million people thanks to its air pollution benefits”.  The extra air pollution over the same period from coal fired plants, built as a result of cancelled nuclear power station projects, could have been avoided and many more lives saved.
In addition environmental activists’ opposition to new nuclear power station research, development and construction means that we are now extending the operating licences on fundamentally unsafe 50 year old nuclear power stations instead of replacing them with much safer designs like those proposed by the Generation IV International Forum.
Furthermore an increasingly onerous regulatory environment has been developed which risks stifling new nuclear developments.  For example in the US, to gain licence approvals to build and operate a new nuclear facility the proposer of the design has to pay $800/day for each man-day of work done by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the proposer has no control over the amount of time spent by them.  As Bill Fox, chief executive of Generation mPower LLC recently said to the UK Parliamentary Committee on small nuclear reactors, it typically takes several years to prepare an application and then three or four years for the NRC to review it.

Inherently safe nuclear power plants
Some of the Generation IV designs are inherently safe and can’t explode, can’t meltdown, reduce their power output if they overheat and shut down safely when there is no power supply.  Mark Lynas  in Chapter 5 page 62, quotes the example of Argonne National Laboratory’s Experimental Breeder Reactor-II (EBR-II) in which, two weeks before the fire at Chernobyl, operators shut down the safety systems and turned off the coolant flow to the reactor in front of a group of international experts to prove that their design was safe.  The reactor shut itself down without operator intervention and the passive cooling system allowed residual heat to decay without any risk of a meltdown.
The EBR-II was part of Argonne’s Integral Fast Reactor Programme which was terminated by John Kerry of Clinton’s Administration in 1994.
Fourth generation nuclear power plant designs also burn their fuel more completely and thus reduce the quantity of waste generated.  Some reactors operating in the fast spectrum like the EBRII can use nuclear waste as a fuel.  
Much of this technology is still at the conceptual stage, although like the EBR II, a demonstration molten salt reactor was operating successfully at Oak Ridge National Laboratory ORNL as far back as the 1960’s. Not wishing to staff the project over the weekends the operators used to switch off the power and it would shut itself down, it was walk away safe. 

Wind farms twice the area of Spain
In Chapter 6 pages 78-81, Mark Lynas critically examines the Greenpeace and Global Wind Energy Council’s report published in November 2012 and takes a critical look at its scenario for 2030, which projects wind power generating 22 per cent of global electricity and solar 17 per cent. He calculates that this would require an area of land to be covered in wind farms which would be twice the size of Spain (or alternatively the combined areas of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Maine, South Carolina, West Virginia, Maryland, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island).  Solar plants would cover another 50,000 square km.  Even if such a massive scale up of renewables was technically, financially and politically possible, whereas this could displace 6.5 billion tonnes of CO2 generated by fossil fuel burning by 2030, under the Greenpeace scenario this falls to only 1.9 billion tonnes of CO2 if all nuclear power plants are all shut down, because wind and solar replace nuclear power rather than fossil fuels.  Furthermore this would still lead to an increase of CO2 emissions of 22 per cent by 2030 compared with a 2011 baseline as a result of the global increase in demand for energy.  It would be the German experiment on a global scale.

All of the Above
But Mark Lynas wants to finish his book on a positive note and at the same time set an ambitious target to limit climate change, so he accepts that such a scale up of renewables is feasible in order to create his vision for 2030.
In Chapter 7 Lynas recounts his involvement with a joint 2012 press release by Renewable UK, the Carbon Capture and Storage Association CCSA and the Nuclear Industry Association in which they call for a zero carbon target for the UK electricity system by 2030 to be included in the Energy Bill.  The Bill was passed with an overwhelming majority on 5 June 2013.
Lynas considers that this represents a clear “All of the Above” strategy, which allows for long term contracts to give renewables, nuclear and CCS the chance to compete against conventional fossil fuel power stations.

He goes on to rerun the Greenpeace and GWEC highly ambitious 2030 global scenario for renewables deployment but this time including a major scale up of nuclear to achieve 1000 nuclear plants as against 420 today.  This investment would generate 12,000 Terawatt-hours from solar and wind whilst nuclear would contribute 8,000TWh.
If all of this was possible, and dogma and old enmities could be put aside, then there is a 50% chance that global temperature rise could be limited to 2deg C.

Mark Lynas on Hard Talk

Nuclear Investment
So where are we with investment in nuclear power. Partly as a result of Fukushima Daiichi and the resulting public pressure to close nuclear power stations, attracting private investment funding for research and development in the developed world is difficult but Western governments in the US, France and the UK are, nevertheless, still committed to nuclear power and are funding research and development of various options.  These include small modular reactors, which should deliver significant cost reductions and timescale benefits.  By fabricating smaller reactors in a factory environment there are benefits of economies of scale and efficiency.  Time on site is reduced and the regulatory burden is also lessened.  Several countries and companies are promoting this promising approach.

China has enormous and growing energy needs.  At present China is coal and coal is China!  It’s choking itself on coal fired air pollution and is continuing to open 60 coal fired power stations per year.

But China is also highly committed to nuclear research and development and by 2015 it will have over 750 researchers working on new nuclear technologies, including molten salt reactors, with the target of having commercial plants available within 15 years.  At the same time it’s installing both renewable power and new nuclear power stations using current generation 3+ technologies.

It currently has 21 nuclear power reactors in operation and 28 more under construction.  By 2020 it plans an additional 58GWe of nuclear power generation, all of this development will still only raise nuclear’s share of power generation to 6% by 2020, but it also plans to build an additional 100GWe of nuclear power station capacity between 2020 and 2030.

So the scale-up of nuclear power at the rate proposed by Mark Lynas is possible when you have the political will and the money to do so.


It’s both a challenge and an opportunity for environmental groups to recognize the real priorities in this debate.  I congratulate Mark Lynas for writing this book and simplifying this complex issue so that it can be more easily understood.  What is at stake is your children’s future.