Not only is it possible, it’s essential
The fourth in our series of Talking Points draws on the new report by Jonathon Porritt, New Zero Without Nuclear: The Case Against Nuclear Power. Given the far-off illusory promise of new reactor designs; the enormous costs; the limited capacity for carbon reductions compared to renewables; the unsolved waste problem; and the inflexibility and outdatedness of the “always on” baseload model, nuclear power is in the way of — rather than a contributor to — climate mitigation. You can download the Net Zero Without Nuclear Talking Points here. This is the fourth in our series. You can find all four here.
By Jonathon Porritt
I first took an interest in Greenpeace back in 1973, before I joined Friends of the Earth, CND and the Green Party (then the Ecology Party) a year later. I’d followed the campaigns against the testing of nuclear weapons in Amchitka (one of the Aleutian islands in Alaska), and then in the French nuclear testing area of Moruroa in the Pacific. I was 23 at the time, with zero in-depth knowledge, but it just seemed wrong, on so many different fronts.
That early history of Greenpeace seems much less relevant now, given all its achievements over the last 50 years in so many other areas of critical environmental concern. But it still matters. Greenpeace has been an ‘anti-nuclear organisation’ through all that time, sometimes fiercely engaged in front-line battles, sometimes maintaining more of a watching brief, and nuclear power plays no part in Greenpeace’s modelling of a rapid transition to a Net Zero carbon world. It’s been very supportive of my new report, ‘Net Zero Without Nuclear’.
I wrote this report partly because the nuclear industry itself is in full-on propaganda mode, and partly because that small caucus of pro-nuclear greens (that’s existed for as long as I can remember) seems to be winning new supporters.
And I can see why. The Net Zero journey we’re now starting out on for real (at long last!) is by far the most daunting challenge that humankind has ever faced. Writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books in June 2019, author and Army veteran Roy Scranton put it like this:
‘Climate change is bigger than the New Deal, bigger than the Marshall Plan, bigger than World War II, bigger than racism, sexism, inequality, slavery, the Holocaust, the end of nature, the Sixth Extinction, famine, war, and plague all put together, because the chaos it’s bringing is going to supercharge every other problem. Successfully meeting this crisis would require an abrupt, traumatic revolution in global human society; failing to meet it will be even worse.’
Not many people see it like that – as yet. But more and more will, as signals of that kind of chaos start to multiply. And we already know that the kind of radical decarbonisation on which our future depends is going to be incredibly hard. So why should we reject a potentially powerful contribution to that decarbonisation challenge?
Given the scale of the challenge we face, we need to have very strong grounds for keeping nuclear out of today’s low/zero-carbon portfolio. Not least as nuclear power, historically, has already made a huge contribution to low-carbon generation. Since the early 1960s, nuclear power has provided the equivalent of 18,000 reactor years of electricity generation. We’d be in a much worse place today if all that electricity had been generated from burning coal or gas.
I became Director of Friends of the Earth in 1984. The same year that my first book, ‘Seeing Green’, was published. Looking back on what I said then, I was indeed fiercely critical of nuclear power, but have to admit that my advocacy of renewables (as the principal alternative) was somewhat muted. Apart from a few visionaries in the early 1980s (including Friends of the Earth’s Amory Lovins and Walt Patterson), no-one really thought that renewables would be capable of substituting for the use of all fossil fuels and all nuclear at any point in the near future. And anyone expressing such a view in official circles was rapidly put back in their box.
Happily, there is no longer any doubt about the viability of that alternative. In 2020, Stanford University issued a collection of 56 peer-reviewed journal articles, from 18 independent research groups, supporting the idea that all the energy required for electricity, transport, heating and cooling, and all industrial purposes, can be supplied reliably with 100% (or near 100%) renewable energy. The solutions involve transitioning ASAP to 100% renewable wind – water – solar (WWS), efficiency and storage.
Renewables are not only coming, but here and taking over. (Photo: Nicholas Doherty/Unsplash)
The transition is already happening. To date, 11 countries have reached or exceeded 100% renewable electricity. And a further 12 countries are intent on reaching that threshold by 2030. In the UK, the Association for Renewable Energy and Clean Technology says we can reach 100% renewable electricity by 2032. Last year, we crossed the 40% threshold.
There is of course a world of difference between electricity and total energy consumption. But at the end of April, Carbon Tracker brought out its latest analysis of the potential for renewables, convincingly explaining why solar and wind alone could meet total world energy demand 100 times over by 2050, and that fears about the huge amount of land this would require are unfounded. The land required for solar panels to provide all global energy would be 450,000 km2, just 0.3% of global land area – significantly less than the current land footprint of fossil fuel infrastructures. As the Report says:
‘The technical and economic barriers have been crossed and the only impediment to change is political. Sector by sector and country by country the fossil fuel incumbency is being swamped by the rapidly rising tide of new energy technologies. Even countries where the technical potential is below 10 times energy demand. . . have devised innovative approaches to energy generation.
‘The fossil fuel industry cannot compete with the technology learning curves of renewables, so demand will inevitably fall as wind and solar continue to grow. At the current 15-20% growth rates of solar and wind, fossil fuels will be pushed out of the electricity sector by the mid-2030s and out of total energy supply by 2050.
‘The unlocking of energy reserves 100 times our current demand creates new possibilities for cheaper energy and more local jobs in a more equitable world with far less environmental stress.
‘Poor countries are the greatest beneficiaries. They have the largest ratio of solar and wind potential to energy demand and stand to unlock huge domestic benefits.’
Nuclear plays no part in any of these projections, whether we’re talking big reactors or small reactors, fission or fusion. The simple truth is this: we should see nuclear as another 20th century technology, with an ever-diminishing role through into the 21st century, incapable of overcoming its inherent problems of cost, construction delay, nuclear waste, decommissioning, security (both physical and cyber), let alone the small but still highly material risk of catastrophic accidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima. My ‘Net Zero Without Nuclear’ report goes into all these inherent problems in some detail.
So why are the UK’s politicians (in all three major parties) still in thrall to this superannuated technology? It’s here we have to go back to Amchitka! Some environmentalists may still be taken aback to discover that the Government’s principal case for nuclear power in the UK today is driven by the need to maintain the UK’s nuclear weapons capability – to ensure a ‘talent pool’ of nuclear engineers and to support a supply chain of engineering companies capable of providing component parts for the nuclear industry, both civilian and military. The indefatigable work of Andy Stirling and Phil Johnston at Sussex University’s Science Policy Research Unit has established the depth and intensity of these interdependencies, demonstrating how the UK’s military industrial base would become unaffordable in the absence of a nuclear energy programme.
What that means is that today’s pro-nuclear greens are throwing in their lot not just with a bottomless pit of hype and fantasy, but with a world still dangerously at risk from that continuing dependence on nuclear weapons. That’s a weird place to be, 50 years on from the emergence of Greenpeace as a force for good in that world.
Jonathon Porritt is a member of the Green Party, former Chair of the UK Sustainable Development Commission, author and campaigner.
Headline photo by Engineering for Change/Creative Commons