There's a Better Energy Assumption Than 'If Not Nuclear, Then Coal'

nuclear power plant and coal power plant photo
photos (L,R): marya/Creative Commons; eutrophication & hypoxia/Creative Commons

In case you missed it yesterday Democracy Now! aired a debate between now-pro-nuclear George Monbiot and the always-against-nuclear Dr Helen Caldicott. Debate is a bit of misnomer because neither really debated the other's talking points much, but it was an interesting discussion. Ultimately though, both fell into what increasingly seems to me to be rather tired talking points. And there's a better way to think about the situation.

Monbiot's newly found nuclear power enthusiasm revolves around the contention that for all its faults (and Monbiot doesn't claim these don't exist, not in the slightest), if it's not nuclear power it's going to be coal-fired power--and it's pretty much undebatable that coal is solidly bad for both personal and planetary health, in a big way. What's more, despite what can happen in a worst-case scenario, the stats show how in normal operation coal is far more deadly than nuclear.

Caldicott, being a doctor and founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility, has focused on the health impacts of nuclear since the early 1970s. Watch the video above for her detailed reasoning, but in brief she believes that the dangers posed by exposure to nuclear radiation are far greater than usually acknowledged.

China Chooses More Solar Over More Coal or Nuclear
Here's the part I find tired: I'm not sure the opposition that Monbiot has set up--if you take nuclear off the table that coal will inevitably fill the space--will bear out or is the only way to think about this issue.

An example from this morning: While not scrapping nuclear power plans altogether, a Chinese energy official announced that in revising its nuclear power goals it will double its target for new solar power for 2015, increasing it to 10 GW. By 2020 China plans for non-fossil fuels to account for 15% of its energy supply, with nuclear at 4%. And, in general, while China still uses huge amounts of coal, renewable energy use is now growing faster than coal.

Perhaps not everyplace will be like China. Maybe that's even a certainty. And certainly providing baseload power with just renewable energy requires some more head scratching, tinkering and innovation than is sometimes done by people crying out of 100% renewables by 2050 or by such and such a date. But I just don't think the situation is accurately described, either practically or theoretically, by if not nuclear then coal.

Health Concerns May Be Valid...
The health part is a bit tired to me too. For however valid Dr Caldicott's claims--I'm not versed in the literature to the degree she is, but as Monbiot points out, while she may have ample studies back up her claims, there's an even larger body saying something different--for however valid her position, it's butting heads in the exact same manner that has been done for the entirety of my life. It falls into an oppositional thinking that just seems to be distracting us from considering other options.

...But There's A Better Way Of Talking About Our Energy Choices
We could be having another discussion here. We could collectively decide that both nuclear and coal are off the table. Generating electricity from extractive industries is something that as a society we simply won't do as the damage to both personal and planetary health are too great.

From that ethical starting point we asses how much can be done with sources that both aren't capable of being depleted or damaging to our environment in the long-term. If current levels of power consumption can be generated from these sources, then fine, generate them. But if the resultant level of available power generated from only renewable sources is below current levels--or if we have to change consumption patterns or distribution patterns because of just using renewables--then we must learn to live within those constraints.

Obviously this is different theoretical starting position than is the current norm. But once if we make the conscious choice to shift perspective to phasing out extractive sources of energy altogether as rapidly as possible, and making that explicit in our energy policy, we can have another discussion. We can shift from expending so much time and mental energy discussing the whys of how renewable energy sources are superior to extractive ones, the whens of the time where renewables become cost-competitive with fossil fuels, and move onto the hows of making it happen and the resultant changes it will necessarily bring.

More on Energy:
Nuclear Power "Economics Are Just Not There": Lester Brown, Earth Policy Institute
100% Renewable Energy By 2050 Is Possible - Here's How We Can Do It

Tags: Coal | Energy | Nuclear Power | Renewable Energy


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