Tag Archives: George Monbiot

Nuclear power at a crossroads

My Clean Break column this week picks up on the noticeable absence — or quietness — of the nuclear power lobby at the climate talks in Durban these past two weeks, and the declining fortunes of the industry. This is good or bad, depending on your perspective. If you’re a George Monbiot, you’re worried about the impact on our already impossible struggle against climate change. If you’re Greenpeace, you’re saying good riddance. Some believe in a post-Fukushima world that low natural gas prices and the high cost of conventional fission reactors are creating a rare opportunity for the emergence of better, safer and lower-cost nuclear technology designs. That may be so, if you’re an optimistic, but those will still take time to develop… ah yes, time. We could use more of that.

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Tyler Hamilton

For years the nuclear power lobby has muscled its way into international climate negotiations and asserted itself as a critical part of any serious effort to reduce global greenhouse-gas emissions.

Not so much during climate talks in Durban, South Africa, these past two weeks. There were some media mentions and the occasional sound bite from industry officials, but the nuclear lobby — still suffering from a Fukushima hangover — stayed relatively quiet this time around.

Even Patrick Moore, Greenpeace [alleged?] co-founder turned nuclear booster, seems to have moved on. His gig these days is defending the oilsands, part of a recent advertising campaign from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

The Fukushima disaster in Japan certainly served a blow to the nuclear power industry. The low price of natural gas and the global economic downturn — and reduced demand for electricity — hasn’t helped matters.

The economics of building new nuclear plants also remain in question. A report just released by the Ontario Sustainable Energy Association points out that even before the Fukushima accident, the decades-long trend of reactor projects being delayed and coming in dramatically over budget was still a reality, as recent experiences in Finland and France clearly show.

The Worldwatch Institute reported last week that generating capacity of the world’s nuclear power fleet dropped 2.4 per cent in 2011, causing nuclear’s share of the world energy mix to fall slightly.

The first 10 months of this year saw the closing of 13 reactors, contributing to a reduction in the total number in operation around the world to 433 from 441. Growth is happening in developing countries such as China, India and Pakistan, but these are far outweighed by reactor shutdowns in France, Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom.

So much for the much-heralded nuclear renaissance. “These numbers can hardly encourage the (nuclear) industry,” said Worldwatch president Robert Engelman.

As much as the anti-nuclear lobby must be cheering, these numbers also beg the question: if not nuclear, then what?

Some environmentalists, while not particularly fans of nuclear power, do worry about the pullback and how it will impact what are already pitiful efforts to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

If, for example, a decline in nuclear capacity means more countries — particularly China — burning more coal and natural gas instead of embracing more renewable energy, then we’re merely trading one risk for another (out-of-control climate change) with a more certain, broad-reaching outcome.

As U.K. Guardian columnist and environmentalist George Monbiot has said, “The choice between renewables and nuclear is a false one. We appear to need both” – as painful a reality as that might be.

If we accept this, then the question shouldn’t be about how to get rid of nuclear power, but about how to make it better and safer.

“For nuclear to gain significant share, it must change,” writes U.K. journalist Mark Halper in a recent report on emerging nuclear innovations, penned for Canadian cleantech consultancy Kachan & Co.

Fukushima gave the world cause for pause, according to the report, but it also created an opportunity to move the nuclear industry in a new direction. “There has never been a better time for mavericks to come forward with safer, better and less costly ways to split atoms or, in the case of the elusive but reachable notion of fusion, to meld them together.”

In Halper’s view, part of the problem is that the nuclear technology we have today was a poor choice from the start, given that it produces weapons-grade plutonium as its waste, is vulnerable to meltdowns, and can potentially release dangerous amounts of radioactive material if something goes horribly wrong.

There were many alternatives to choose from half a century ago, but the fission reactor design most in use today was the result of Cold War decision-making.

“As undesirable as plutonium waste is today, it was in demand during the atomic weapons build up of the Cold War, helping the water-cooled uranium reactor win the day in the 1960s,” Halper writes. “It was a VHS victory over several superior Betamax alternatives.”

Some Betamax alternatives, however, are trying to make a comeback. The Kachan report outlines a number of technology alternatives currently in play, some of them based on designs or ideas that have been around for several decades.

Included in this list are reactors that use thorium as fuel instead of uranium, or which are cooled using gas. Molten salt, pebble bed and fast-neutron reactors are also being seriously considered. And yes, even fusion technology, including a mechanical reactor from Vancouver-based General Fusion, is grabbing attention.

Some designs deal with the toxic waste and nuclear proliferation issues. Others improve significantly on safety, such as eliminating the potential for meltdown. This is all exciting news for those outside the old boys nuclear club.

Unfortunately, they don’t offer a quick fix. Our nuclear regulators, underfunded as they are, haven’t the resources and time to understand, let alone establish rules for, new nuclear reactor designs. It will take many years, perhaps decades, for competing technologies to take hold.

But time is something severely lacking when it comes to avoiding the worst effects of climate change. This, even with “old” nuclear technology in decline and better alternatives on the rise, is the conundrum we face.

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.

Wente continues to mislead, misinform Canadian public

Climate blogger and author Joe Romm of Climateprogress.org has a new book out called Straight Up, and it’s largely a selection of his best blog postings over the past few years related to climate change issues. One section is devoted to the Status Quo Media, and is a stinging critique of how poorly the mainstream media has covered global warming and, I would add by extension, the need to embrace clean energy. One repost, dated Jan. 25, 2009, refers to a study by Eric Pooley, former managing editor of Fortune and national editor at Time. Romm pulls the following quote from Pooley’s study:

The press failed to perform the basic service of making climate policy and its economic impact understandable to the reader and allowed opponents of climate action to set the terms of the cost debate. The argument centred on the short-term costs of taking action — that is, higher electricity and gasoline prices — and sometimes assumed that doing nothing about climate change carried no cost.

As Romm later writes: “Although Pooley doesn’t make the point, the problem he identifies is compounded by the fact that the mainstream economic community also overestimates the cost of action and underestimates the cost of inaction.”

This brings me to Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente, a talented, award-winning writer who regularly crosses into the realm of fiction when talking about climate change and green energy. She’s a generalist — knows squat, really, about climate change science and the economics or technology around green energy technologies — but she continues to put herself out there as an authority on such issues. As a result, she’s misleading a Canadian public that’s seeking constructive (and truthful) guidance on the tough choices that lie ahead.

Take Wente’s latest column, which appeared on Saturday, titled “Welcome to the wacky world of green power.” In it, she weighs in on the Ontario government’s announcement last week that it has awarded power-purchase contracts to 184 green energy projects representing 2,500 megawatts of power capacity and up to $9 billion in private investment in the province. “Welcome to the wacky world of green power, where misguided governments have sparked a massive corporate feeding frenzy (at taxpayers’ expense) to achieve little or nothing of any social benefit,” she writes.

Let’s deconstruct this latest column: Continue reading Wente continues to mislead, misinform Canadian public

George Monbiot slams Canadian government for thuggish ways

Heat author and environmental activist George Monbiot has what I believe is a column that accurately describes how Canada is viewed internationally as world leaders head to Copenhagen to hammer out some sort of climate agreement. The column is titled “The Urgent Threat to World Peace is … Canada.” I would argue it also accurately describes how many Canadians view the actions — or inactions — of their own government. Please read, and please pass around. It’s time to get viral.

Munk debate on climate change gets it wrong

I’ve just returned from the Munk Debate featuring Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, Guardian columnist and Heat author George Monbiot, the skeptical environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg, and British global-warming skeptic and author Nigel Lawson, who insists on having “Lord” precede his name.

At debate was the following statement: “Climate change is mankind’s defining crisis, and demands a commensurate international response.”

To start, let me just echo Elizabeth May by saying the fact we’re even having this debate just days before Copenhagen is a sad, sad thing. “We should be arguing how do we reach the targets, not if we should do it,” said May in her opening comments. “The science since 1988, in case anybody hasn’t heard, has only gotten stronger.” Unfortunately, this debate served only as another forum for Lomborg and Lawson to promote themselves and create confusion around an issue scientists are quite clear on.

In a nutshell, Lawson’s argument is simple: fossil fuels are cheap compared to the alternatives and if we force cleaner and more costly alternatives on developing countries it will deny them growth and keep their citizens poor and helpless. Plans being considered to fight global warming are “madness” and “scientifically unfounded” and “immoral,” he says. Lawson, of course, doesn’t even believe in man-made climate change, or peak oil, so figures we can continue going along our merry way burning as much dirty fossil fuel as we can. Lomborg, on the other hand, says he believes in global warming but also believes the costs being proposed to mitigate it are out of proportion with what it will accomplish. Better, he says, to take all that money and put it directly into feeding the hungry, getting medicine for the poor, and helping developing countries help themselves. Problem is he positions this all as a choice between A or B, failing to acknowledge that we need to do both — acting on one doesn’t, nor should it, preclude the other. He also seem to ignore the fact that climate change will cause more disease, drought, and extreme weather that will leave the poor in a more dire state.

Of course I’m biased, but I have to say I thought both Lomborg and Lawson were terrible debaters. Lomborg, dressed in worn jeans and a long-sleeve t-shirt, came across oddly like he was selling write-your-own-will software on a TV infomercial. His arguments were simply weak, but convincing for the easily swayed. Lawson was hard to understand half the time, talking as if he had marbles in his mouth, and he threw out ludicrous and false statements to support his claim that he’s a man of reason who supports only reasonable things. Unfortunately, it seems some of the audience at the Munk debate were charmed by the rhetoric of both men.

May and Monbiot were persuasive, articulate, informed and at time humorous, but you could also tell they were getting quite frustrated at the spin and the misinformation being thrown out there. Monbiot started with a question: “How lucky do you feel?” His point being that we’re gambling with the future of humanity. He said it’s easy to say don’t worry, be happy, do nothing until we really know we have to, because those living in developed countries may be able to afford a bit of delay and adaptation. But that really leaves developing countries in a precarious situation. Is it really moral to test the waters for sharks by throwing in the poor? Even worse, we — the developed world — are the ones who filled the waters with sharks. Monbiot also took issue with claims that it will cost too much. He cited an International Energy Agency report that said we need to spend tens of trillions of dollars over the next few decades to renew our conventional energy infrastructure. If we have to spend that, then why not spend it on cleaner sources of energy?

May weighed in by rightly pointing out that alternatives such as solar aren’t necessarily more expensive, particularly when you’re targeting the poor of the developed world. It’s cheaper to put a few solar panels in a small village than it is to build transmission and distribution infrastructure that would carry power from a far-away coal plant. Both May and Monbiot pointed out that water scarcity is going to become a huge issue with climate change and that drought will lead to conflict and pose a threat to world security. Both did an excellent job. My only wish is that they spent a bit more time talking about the other benefits of moving to clean energy. I mean, even in the unlikely event that climate change science shows us we overreacted, is it such a bad thing that we also acted to reduce air pollution, mercury emissions, the use of water in thermal power plants, and the other environmental footprints caused by our addiction to fossil fuels. That’s a pretty nice consolation prize. And though they touched on it, I also wish they talked more about the economic opportunities of transitioning to a green economy, and how the costs won’t be as high as some think. There will be pain, but the pain will come from the transition, and it will be temporary.

Anyway, I could go on and on. I’m happy it was a soldout event and that so many people expressed an interest in this issue. I only wish, as May pointed out, the debate was around what to do, not whether to do. I also got the sense that many of the people who attended were simply out of touch with the realities facing the world outside our own privileged lives. When the debate ended we all walked out of the theatre, grabbed a glass of wine, chatted, laughed, then on the way out were handed a box of chocolates. Have a nice evening… so spoiled we are, and far too content.