“If it isn’t going to be nuclear power, then it’s going to be geoengineering”: Tom Wigley

Hats off to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists for a timely myth-busting interview with one of the world’s top climate scientists, Tom Wigley.

In this interview, Wigley argues that the climate problem cannot be solved with renewable energy alone, and that, without turning to geoengineering, consideration of the nuclear energy pathway—in particular, resuming the development of fast reactors—should be an essential component of attempts to address the climate crisis.

Here is a summary of Wigley’s response to some key challenges that are identified in the latest IPCC report.

1. Timescales. Regulatory process can slow things down, especially in the US. However, Wigley points to China, where 29 reactors are under construction, and France, which built out an entire fleet within a decade. [France and Ontario are the only major economies to have brought their carbon intensity to a safe level, below 100gCo2/kwh.] Wigley says: “I don’t think the time factor is a serious issue.”

2. Proliferation & Waste. Wigley describes himself as “saddened” that environmentalists remain so vehemently opposed to nuclear power. He argues the it is not well-understood that the potential for Integral Fast Reactors is to eliminate the perceived problems of waste and proliferation. Nuclear is therefore currently severely misrepresented by mainstream environmentalists. He goes so far as to say that members of the IPCC Working Group III do not fully appreciate these issues.

3. Safety. Wigley says: “We don’t yet have fast reactor technology at scale, but we do have passively safe third-generation reactors that are being built right now. They have none of the safety problems associated with second-generation reactors.”

Wigley recently made headlines as the co-author—with three other prominent climate scientists—of an open letter addressed to “those influencing environmental policy but opposed to nuclear power,” urging them “to advocate the development and deployment of safer nuclear energy systems.”

Wigley and his three colleagues argued that renewable energy alone will not be sufficient to address the climate challenge, because it cannot be scaled up quickly and cheaply enough, and that opposition to nuclear power “threatens humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change.”

You can read the whole interview here.

Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?

Shall we build our energy system from straw? Or sticks? Or bricks?

The Observer splash led with an assertion that “David Cameron’s commitment to the green agenda will come under the fiercest scrutiny yet this week when top climate-change experts will warn that only greater use of renewable energy – including windfarms – can prevent a global catastrophe.”

Once again, the latest IPCC report has been undermined by being used as a political football: by politicians, by journalists, and by mainstream environmentalists. Each one interpreting the findings to serve their own interests, whether to bash the opposite party, push an editorial line, or bang the drum for a pet technology.

Yes, we need renewable energy. But firstly, it is arrogant to dismiss the rest. Secondly, it’s dangerous to cherry pick from the IPCC recommendations to suggest that we can keep the wolf from blowing our house down by tripling renewable energy alone. The truth is the IPCC calls for tripling, or near quadrupling, the current output of ALL zero and low carbon technologies. That sounds like a brick house to me.

So, rather than dismiss the bad boy of energy policy because it is too difficult, or not popular enough, we need a realistic change in tone to say: yes, we do need all of the above, including nuclear. Here are the challenges, now let’s have an honest appraisal of what needs to happen to fix valid concerns about safety, waste, proliferation and cost. The alternative is arrogantly believing that houses of straw and twigs will protect us from the Big Bad Wolf. We need our political leaders and opinion formers to take the IPCC findings seriously and making big efforts to meet those challenges to enable all low carbon technologies to be deployed at scale.

With nuclear, there are significant technological, regulatory, political and public perception challenges to overcome. Who is leading this charge? I see significant gaps in this effort amongst the international community. The United Nations Sustainable Energy for All initiative should be at the vanguard, but it’s not. This is just one example of how the public debate and policy agenda is being distorted away from what is realistic in creating a clean energy future.

As US secretary of state John Kerry put it on Sunday: “This report makes very clear we face an issue of global willpower, not capacity.”


Let them eat coal.

Marie Antoinette famously did not say: “Let them eat cake!” on the eve of the French revolution, although it has been attributed to her as evidence that she failed to appreciate the plight of starving French peasants. Somehow I have been reminded of this callous and ignorant phrase upon hearing of a new PR offensive by the coal industry to “eliminate energy poverty”.

In light of yet more dire predictions from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) about the scale of disaster climate change is expected to wreak on the world’s poorest people, it is shocking, yet not surprising that the worlds largest coal firm (Peabody) has hired the world’s largest PR firm (Burson-Marsteller) to launch a campaign called “Affordable Energy for Life”.

Calling “global energy poverty the world’s number one human and environmental crisis” the coal industry has launched “a comprehensive global campaign aimed at building awareness and support to eliminate energy poverty, increase access to low-cost electricity and improve emissions through advanced clean coal technologies.”

I would like to say that this is nothing more than a cynical move to resist the tide turning against coal. But in fact, the tide is not turning against coal. According to the International Energy Agency, coal is set to overtake oil as the number source of energy worldwide. This is for two reasons. Firstly, coal is abundant and cheap. Secondly, half the world’s population does not have access to electricity. Most of the growth in electricity generation is driven by coal. Indeed, as Ed Crooks reported in the FT this week, Exxon Mobil expects fossil fuels to be around 75% of global energy in 2040, and while this appears to be consistent with the IEA forecasts, it is not consistent with the staying within the 2degrees of warming target.

We shouldn’t turn our noses up. Old King Coal has served us well. The economics of coal drove the industrial revolution in the west, just as is now happening in China and elsewhere. Unlike previous sources of energy the effort expended in mining and burning coal results in a much greater output of energy released. The progress, prosperity and quality of life many of us enjoy today are thanks to, and still largely powered by, coal. (In the UK, coal contributes up to 40% of our electricity mix).

However, electricity from burning coal comes with a heavy price.

Burning coal generates carbon emissions as well as hazardous pollutants such as mercury, lead, and benzene. The latest IPCC report warns that “the worst is yet to come” with severe climate impacts that will hit the poorest hardest.

The BBC reported last week that one in eight global deaths were linked with air pollution, making it “the world’s largest single environmental health risk“, according to the World Health Organisation. Air pollution caused 7 million deaths worldwide in 2012 alone.

Women and children are disproportionately affected. WHO family, woman and children’s health assistant director-general Dr Flavia Bustreo said“Poor women and children pay a heavy price from indoor air pollution since they spend more time at home breathing in smoke and soot from leaky coal and wood cook stoves.”

Reducing indoor air pollution by increasing access to electricity is synonymous with prosperity and public good. But electricity generation from coal comes with a long-term payback.

China is good example of the short-term gain in exchange for long-term pain. Rapid growth in coal-fired power stations has given millions of people access to electricity, thereby raising their quality of life, and reducing indoor air pollution. However, the net result is that the air pollution (and associated climate and health risks) has been pushed outdoors into the local environment and wider atmosphere, the smog ultimately causing permanent and lasting damage for millions of people.

The question is this. How can we best respond to the twin challenges for our time: climate change, caused by energy consumption, and poverty, caused by lack of access to energy? Until we recognize that these challenges are mutually dependent, we will never win the battle for hearts and minds.

Having run PR campaigns for a catalogue of world-class villains, from the tobacco industry to Union Carbide after the Bhopal disaster, Burson-Marsteller have the perfect track record to push dirty coal to the world’s poorest people. Right now, climate campaigners are pushing solutions (renewables and efficiency) that cannot compete with coal in terms of cost or performance compared to fossil fuels. In the battle between climate and coal, coal is winning because it promises prosperity.

Just this week, Chris Field, co-chairman of the working group of the IPCC called for a more positivity about the opportunities at stake. “If climate change is a total downer because everything looks so serious, and the only ways to cope effectively are to give up all good things in life, it’s going to be really hard to take action.” He said: “If dealing effectively is taking an innovative, creative, entrepreneurial approach, building great businesses and communities, then it’s a problem that we can deal with.”

 Climate campaigners need a new narrative that recognises the rights of half the world to access the electricity we take for granted, whilst being realistic about what it will take to replace the world’s existing fossil fuel infrastructure…and then double it.

First published on Business Green.

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Latest United Nations Assessment of health risks from fukushima

Just had word of new findings on Fukushima health effects out today from UNSCEAR (United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation).

The latest UNSCEAR report “finds that no discernible changes in future cancer rates and hereditary diseases are expected due to exposure to radiation as a result of the Fukushima nuclear accident; and, that no increases in the rates of birth defects are expected.”

“People are rightly concerned about the impact on their health and their children’s health,” said Carl-Magnus Larsson, Chair, UNSCEAR. “Based on this assessment, however, the Committee does not expect significant changes in future cancer statistics that could be attributed to radiation exposure from the accident,” he said.

For marine ecosystems, the possibility of effects on flora and fauna was limited to the shoreline area adjacent to the power station, and the potential for effects over the long term was considered insignificant.

Personally, I wish Greenpeace, the Guardian and others who have spent considerable time raising the alarm over Fukushima would also point to these reassuring findings, and secondly recognise that in this case, spreading fear is much more harmful than radiation.

The press release is here. Thanks to @jeremyWNA for the heads up.

What will it take to decarbonise the UK?

Just what volume of energy generation will it take to decarbonise the UK? One of my favourite, jaw-dropping pieces of analysis on this is by the Royal Academy of Engineering, who published a report Generating the Future (2010) setting out just how much new low carbon electricity generation would be required for the UK to meet its legally binding climate targets to cut carbon by 80% by 2050.

The results are staggering. The shopping list includes: 38 London Array wind farms, 10,000 2.5MW onshore wind farms, the Severn Barrage, 25GW of biomass, oh, and 40 new nuclear power plants.

The Academy do not mince their words, saying: “Fundamental restructuring of the UK’s entire energy system is unavoidable if it is to meet future energy demand while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050, even assuming that energy demand in all sectors can be substantially reduced.”

“If we are to achieve this, the scale of the undertaking will require the biggest peacetime programme of investment and social change the UK has ever seen.”

It is possible to achieve a non-nuclear scenario, for example, using the DECC energy pathfinder: http://my2050.decc.gov.uk/ but this requires significant compromises, in terms of environmental impact (cover 75% of land in energy crops, anyone?) cost, economic competitiveness, lifestyle changes, or environmental impact, which may not be acceptable to the public.

As Mark Lynas details in his e-book Nuclear 2.0 Why Nuclear a Green Future Needs Nuclear Power, environmentalists are increasingly realising nuclear is essential.