What Will Work

By Bryan Walker 24/01/2012

Kristin Shrader-Frechette of the University of Notre Dame is rigorous in the presentation of her argument in What Will Work: Fighting Climate Change with Renewable Energy, Not Nuclear Power. In recent times a number of leading environmentalists have concluded nuclear power has to be employed to enable the transition away from fossil fuels. Shrader-Frechette disagrees. There is no ’devil’s choice’ between expanding nuclear fission and enduring climate change. Nuclear power is not needed, and it’s certainly not desirable.

Not that the author in any way downplays the need to give up the use of fossil fuels. She fully accepts the science of climate change and what is needed to avoid climate-related catastrophe. Objections to taking action are listed in detail and briskly dismissed. The people who deny climate change for profit are categorised and exposed for their role in misleading the public. Among them, sadly, are the American politicians who repay campaign fund donations from fossil-fuel companies by denying or delaying climate change issues.

But Shrader-Frechette rejects the argument that nuclear power is necessary in the energy mix if we are to address climate change quickly enough to be effective. A substantial part of the book is devoted to showing that nuclear energy is not only undesirable but also diverts much-needed investment and government subsidy from energy efficiency and renewable energy development. Far from being part of the solution it gets in the way of solution.

Nuclear generation is not carbon free if all the stages in its production are counted. The author agrees that the greenhouse gas emissions component of nuclear power is considerably lower than coal and lower than gas. Nevertheless it is higher than solar and wind. That’s with high-grade uranium ore. But when lower-grade uranium is employed nuclear generation’s emissions profile rises to be level with that of gas, and very much higher than wind and solar.

Rapid implementation of nuclear is offered as one of its advantages over renewables, but the author explains why she considers that claim is flawed. Reactors have typically taken many years to build and though claims are made that future reactor construction times will decrease, the newer reactor designs are untested.  Renewable technologies already offer the prospect of speedier implementation.

In the matter of cost the author claims nearly all nuclear-fission estimates are well understated. In many cases full-liability insurance costs are excluded, interest rates and construction times are underestimated, reactor load factors and lifetimes overestimated. Nuclear power by her analysis is far more expensive than the combination of energy efficiency programmes and renewable energy sources that she favours.

In a closely-argued chapter looking at the health effects of nuclear accidents at Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island she considers studies and hypotheses which she concludes demonstrate that nuclear fission is an extremely risky technology for human health.

She wraps up her case against nuclear generation with a consideration of environmental justice, noting amongst other things that indigenous people and minorities are most exposed to radiation danger, that in the US commercial reactors are disproportionately sited in the poorest parts of the country and that regulation standards protect US children less well than adults.

The author’s case is impressively and carefully documented. I’m in no position to evaluate the relative merits of the many studies she refers to and I’m well aware that the arguments are fiercely contested. I’ve tended to think that if a measure of nuclear generation is the only way of successfully stopping the burning of fossil fuel then we may regretfully have to take it. So the question in my mind in reading a book like this is whether renewable energy alone can really suffice.

Shrader-Frechette refers throughout the book to that question but towards the end turns her full attention to it. Typically, she provides a comprehensive list of reasons. Heading the list is the employment of energy efficiency and conservation as the cheapest ways to address climate change. These measures are both comprehensive, covering a wide range of emissions, and profitable. The book estimates that every dollar invested in energy efficiency displaces 6.8 times more carbon-equivalent emissions than investments in nuclear power.

Turning to renewables, she focuses particularly on wind and solar. Wind energy is inexpensive, plentiful, and easier to implement than atomic power. One of the reasons it is not now more available lies with the successful lobbying of campaign donors in the fossil fuel and nuclear industries resulting in billions of dollars misspent on nuclear energy subsidies in the US. Those same industries have misleadingly emphasised the need for baseload power. Solar PV, like wind, is an inexpensive and plentiful alternative to nuclear.

Markets are recognising the economic advantages of renewables over nuclear. Renewables are getting cheaper while nuclear is getting more expensive. Renewables also have the capacity to supply all global energy needs as nuclear does not. The book sets out the guidelines that many scientists and international energy agencies have proposed for the transition from fossil to renewable non-nuclear energy, a transition which the author considers can be made easily and smoothly.  As to the question of whether it can be made quickly enough to adequately address climate change, she points to the commitments in the past which produced rapid changes, including the 25-year phasing out of chlorofluorocarbons. Similar commitment can see the phasing out of both fossil fuels and nuclear energy, replaced by renewable technologies, conservation and efficiency programmes.

My country New Zealand thankfully does not have to even think about nuclear power. Our renewable energy resources are ample to replace fossil fuel use, if we ever find the resolve to do so. But it’s a live issue for many countries and Shrader-Frechette’s advocacy bears on a question of major importance for policy makers. The author supports her case with a wealth of detailed and tightly-packed reference.  Her treatment is exhaustive, but always clearly signposted with frequent overviews and summaries. The result is a book clearly worth respect in the melee of opinion on the makeup of a low-carbon future.  If indeed that is the future we embrace soon enough to avoid the direst consequences of continued burning of fossil fuel.

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