Environmentalist Weighs Merits, Perils Of New Nuclear Power Plants

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A compelling graph often shown to college students in introductory courses on statistics shows energy consumption versus GDP growth. The relationship is deeply correlated across all continents and epochs. There is a one-to-one relationship between the economic success of a nation and the amount of energy it consumes.

This stark fact is worth remembering when we discuss global warming and the need to reduce carbon emissions. The antidote to poverty is economic growth, and economic growth is positively correlated with energy consumption. So if we are to achieve a reduction of carbon emissions without dooming millions in the developing world to continued, ghastly poverty, we must find alternative sources of energy for those we propose to junk because they pollute the atmosphere.

That is the core thesis of a new Kindle Single ebook by the science writer Mark Lynas called Nuclear 2.0: Why A Green Future Needs Nuclear Power. Lynas kicks off his discussion by suggesting that everything you thought you knew about nuclear power is probably wrong. This is just as well, because he will then try to demonstrate to you that nuclear energy is essential to avoid catastrophic global warming. Using the latest compilation of world energy statistics, Lynas shows that with wind and solar still at only about one per cent of global primary energy, asking renewables to deliver all the world’s power is “dangerously delusional.”

Moreover, harking back to that ironclad correlation between economic growth and energy growth, there is no possibility of using less energy while the developing world is painfully extricating itself from poverty. Developing world economic growth requires adding the equivalent of a new Brazil to global electricity consumption each year. To maintain this pace with carbon-based fuels, you’d need to open a new coal-fired 100-megawatt power plant every 27 days.

The anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s and ’80s succeeded only in making the world more dependent on fossil fuels. Now, at the dawn of the second decade of the new millennium, we have a chance to plot a new course, Lynas argues, and we must avoid that course which is “not lit by sunshine, but shrouded in coal smoke”. Those who want to see a low-carbon future need to join forces, he insists, concluding his short ebook with an ambitious proposal for an Manhattan Project kind of investment in wind, solar, and nuclear power.

Though he could have taken more time and more pages to make his case, Mark Lynas makes a compelling argument for a significant expansion of nuclear power stations as being the only realistic way of keeping carbon emissions in check. He marshals the facts to make his case. Most observers of nuclear powre probably think it is unlikely that a new consensus in favor of huge increases in nuclear power station construction is even possible. That may still be the case. One short ebook will not change the debate. Yet absent some unforeseen and exogenous technological miracle, this may be the best chance we have.

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