I recently picked up a copy Mark Lynas’ High Tide: the truth about our climate crisis (Picador, New York, 2004) in an op shop. This was a different approach to the problem of climate change. Whilst using available scientific data to back his case the main thrust of the book was for him to visit sites around the globe where the effects of climate change were clearly visible. Lynas has interesting accounts of the melting permafrost in Alaska with buckled roads and distorted buildings, sea level rise in Tuvalu where at high tide the water comes up through the floors of buildings and the disappearance of a glacier in Peru. Of particular interest was the divided politics of an Alaska heavily dependent on oil reserves – similar to a Gippsland dependent on coal and oil. Curious to see what Lynas had done since this publication a net search revealed a number of more recent publications including Six Degrees (2008).
The search also revealed that Lynas was one of a small group of activists advocating nuclear energy as the solution to global warming. This group includes the most famous climate scientist James Hansen whose book Storms of my Grandchildren (Bloomsbury, London, 2009) I have on my shelves and whose ‘Fee and Dividend’ policy I promoted in a recent election as an alternative to a carbon tax. But due to my upbringing in the cold war and the age of the nuclear bomb I have always been suspicious of nuclear energy and in 1983 my first foray into politics was as a candidate for the Nuclear Disarmament Party in Gippsland. Since 2008 when I became increasingly focused on climate change I have modified my opposition to nuclear energy to the extent that I now accept operating and relatively safe nuclear plants as being ‘carbon neutral’.
But the ‘nuclear versus renewables’ is a harmful debate in that it detracts from the urgency of climate mitigation. The Fukushima tragedy for instance has meant that Germany, the renewable energy leader in Europe, has been phasing out nuclear energy plants before brown coal. To help clarify some of these issues I turned to my ‘bible’ -Barrie Pittock’s Climate Change: turning up the heat (CSIRO, Melbourne, 2005). Pittock notes that nuclear energy provides about 7% of the world’s energy but emphasises public concern over nuclear accidents like Chernoble in 1986 (his publication preceded Fukushima) and lists a number of criteria that are obstacles to any widespread adoption of nuclear power. These include safeguards against nuclear weapons proliferation, economic competitiveness and ‘heightened fears of terrorism’. In particular he noted the following:
“Another consideration is the energy payback time for nuclear reactors. The large materials investment in the building of a nuclear power station, such as in concrete and steel, requires large energy input. This leads to what are called ‘embedded emissions’. Thus the pay-back time before there is any net reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, may be several decades for each reactor, and longer if hundreds of reactors are to be built over the next fifty years.”(p.173)
For those concerned about the ‘climate emergency’ and those getting on in years like myself ‘fifty years’ is far too long. Nor can we wait for the ‘holy grail’ breakthrough to safe and abundant ‘fusion’ energy. The answer must be the rapid adoption of renewable energy and in particular solar – safe, dependable and installable now.