Reaction to James Lovelock on nuclear

My letter to the editor of Atmospheric Science (Atmos. Sci. Let; 5: 108–109), in reaction to James Lovelock‘s contribution to the Viewpoint section of Something Lurking in the Greenhouse. Published online 22 December 2004 in Wiley InterScience. For the letter, and a response from James Lovelock click here.

James Lovelock is right to be alarmed at the failure of most people to grasp the scale of the threat posed by climate change. He is right, too, to call this issue ‘the greatest test humanity has ever had.’ But he is wrong to allow his fear for our future to corrupt his reasoning to the extent that it has.

To compare the Kyoto Protocol to the Munich agreement, as he recently did, is to go beyond hyperbole. It displays a concurrent ignorance of history and taste for the vernacular that belittles him more than it does those whom he attacks. It is disheartening to see a mind as subtle as Professor Lovelock’s panicked into the banal simplicities more familiar from our political leaders.

The main thrust of Professor Lovelock’s argument is that it is the irrational fears of environmentalists that are the principal obstacle to the widespread adoption of nuclear power which is the only alternative to the combustion of fossil fuels that is destabilising the climate. Would that this were true.

The reality is that the fears of environmentalists, rational or not, have had far less influence on the fate of nuclear power than the industry itself. Three Mile Island and Chernobyl were defining events in the public perception of nuclear energy but environmentalists played no part in them. It is scared investors, both private and public, that have abandoned the nuclear industry, but their fears are financial not environmental.

The brutal truth is that no-one has yet managed to work out a way of getting nuclear reactors to burn uranium as effectively as they burn money – though extraordinary creativity has gone into concealing this fact from public view. Nor has anyone discovered how to make atoms work for peace without making them available for war.

Furthermore, the argument that there is no alternative has always been an excuse for failure of the human imagination when it has not simply been bullying. There are very many climate friendly ways to meet the demand for electricity and mobility from a growing population that do not involve nuclear power. Moreover, they can do so more quickly, with lower economic and engineering risks and with less vulnerability to interruption, or attraction for terrorists, than nuclear power stations.

It is striking that few among those keenest to promote the advantages of nuclear power want to use their own money to secure them. The clamour for tax payers money is, however, loud.

As energy markets everywhere have liberalised, investors have fled nuclear. No new nuclear power station has begun construction in the U.K. for fifteen years or for a decade in OECD Europe or North America.

Investor’s fears are understandable. What is attractive about an investment that produces no revenues for at least seven years, can only be worthwhile in very large tranches, upwards of 10 GW in the real world , and is subject to a raft of difficult to quantify socio-political risks? And that is just for the power stations.

Investors will be betting that governments remain willing to add to the already gargantuan bill for the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle. They would be betting that the taxpayer will go on indefinitely underwriting the insurance costs of the nuclear industry – one of the most egregious of the many hidden subsidies to nuclear power that so distort its economics. And, they would be praying that no-one anywhere in the world, through misfortune or malice, lost control of a nuclear reactor. Little wonder that they can find better uses for their money.

In the first term of his argument, Professor Lovelock substituted abuse for analysis, the second term, that there is no alternative to nuclear, is equally fallacious. Implicit in his argument is the need for governments to play a more interventionist role in energy policy than has lately been the fashion. He is right about this. The scale and nature of the energy investment needed to avoid an unstable climate is well beyond the capability of liberalised energy markets to provide in time to make a difference.

Much play had been made of the supposed difficulty of scaling up the deployment of renewables fast enough to be useful. Less is heard about how difficult it might be to scale up nuclear power programmes. One authoritative estimate suggests that the earliest a new nuclear power station could be operating in the United Kingdom is about 2020 .

Furthermore, it really would be new. No-one is proposing that we would repeat existing designs. Thus, there would be all of the cost and engineering uncertainties associated with new projects of this complexity. Since it would be hard to argue for series ordering without permitting at least a few years operating experience ( the AGR programme may be lamented but it is not forgotten ) then we might optimistically look to 2025 to begin series ordering at the earliest.

If there really is no alternative to nuclear then we really are in trouble on the climate. The crucial climate challenge is to avoid lock-in to emissions intensive technologies over the next 20 years. There is little prospect that nuclear, even if we could overcome all the social, political and financial obstacles, can make any contribution to this task. But the effort to do so would soak up all the capital that would otherwise be available for more relevant and better value investment in the renewables.

Fortunately, there is an alternative, or to be more precise, there are alternatives. And they have many attractions for investors, both public and private. For the most part they have far shorter planning and construction cycles thus allowing revenues to flow earlier and helping to drive down the cost of capital. The combination of a shorter cycle time and a competitive suppliers market drives rapid technical progress and lower costs, particularly as large scale ordering kicks in.

Intermittency is a greatly exaggerated problem for the renewables. Nuclear’s predictability of supply already has to be matched to the volatility of demand at considerable cost. Modern information handling capacity makes possible load management systems undreamt of when national grids were designed. Anyway, there are many renewables, not just wind, and they are not all off-line at the same time.

Renewables, and more immediately, energy efficiency, offer us in the U.K. the best value for money in achieving a stable climate. As was pointed out recently by the Rocky Mountain Institute, ‘Every dollar invested in electric efficiency displaces between five and seven times as much carbon dioxide as each dollar invested in nuclear power’ But these are not the only competitors for nuclear in the world at large. It is very difficult to imagine a politically available pathway to a stable climate that ignores American, Chinese, and Indian coal.

We know now that coal gasification combined with carbon sequestration offers a technologically available pathway to climate friendly coal. Investing in this pathway is perhaps the single most urgent priority to avoid the lock-in that makes an unstable climate inevitable. Nostalgia for an unrealised dream is no substitute for a hard look at the future. The sense of urgency about the climate which I share with Professor Lovelock makes me all the sadder that he has allowed that dream to cloud his vision.