James Lovelock's assessment that carbon dioxide is a dire problem that we must start addressing immediately is correct. But Mr. Lovelock's solution—nuclear energy—is flawed. Here's why:
Accidents. While the worst nuclear accidents are emblazoned on the minds of millions, there have been more big ones than you probably know: Chalk River (1952), Greifswald (1976), Three-Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1985), Monju (1995), Tokaimura (1999), for starters. While only 31 people died immediately from radiation at Chernobyl, an estimated 3 billion people received some radiation exposure, and one estimate suggests that accident will ultimately cost 16,000 lives. There is evidence that even normally functioning nuclear plants have harmful health effects; one study found that infant deaths and childhood cancer rates around nuclear plants dropped after they closed (see YES!, Spring 2003). Any accidents with windmills and solar arrays are minor and local, whereas nuclear's effects are wide and long-term. And then there's the possibility of terrorist acts involving nuclear plants.
Nuclear Waste. If anyone has a solution to this problem, please let it be known. Despite trying for decades and spending billions, the U.S. government has been unable to create safe storage for nuclear plant waste, which stays highly radioactive for thousands of years.
Economics. Nuclear power plant catastrophes are potentially so enormous that insurance companies won't fully insure the plants—they are insured by the federal government, which is to say by taxpayers. While many tout nuclear electricity as comparable in price to gas- and coal-generated energy, this is so only for operational costs—capital costs push nuclear power to the edge of fiscal sanity. And then there are the costs of dealing with the waste and decommissioning the plants at the ends of their lives, both of which cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
Energy Delivery. Because it is both less expensive and more reliable, we should be striving toward energy decentralization. But nuclear plants are big and centralized. They rely on the grid, where most outages now originate. Decentralized generation (such as small gas turbines, renewables, and fuel cells) is quick to build at just the right size, so utilities no longer have to predict energy use decades in advance to ensure future supplies.
Carbon Dioxide Emissions. Mining, transporting, building the facilities, and enriching nuclear fuel is all done with fossil-fuel-powered machines, and ore quality determines how much energy is used to prepare the fuel. In a 2003 study, Dutch researchers found that below a certain ore grade, the mining and milling process consumes more energy than the uranium generates in a nuclear power plant. Their calculations (see www.stormsmith.nl) show that unless rich ores are used, electricity from nuclear systems may consume more fossil fuel and emit more carbon dioxide than deriving electricity directly from the fossil fuel. They estimate that if we got all of our electricity from nuclear power, the world supply of rich ore would last three years.
There is an alternative. In 1976, Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute (my boss) suggested that efficiency improvements could supply 46 percent of the demand projected for 2000. In 2000, efficiency met 50 percent of forecasted demand. If public policy were to keep up with technology, efficiency could meet a large amount of future needs. Using efficiency, renewables, better government policies (such as levelling the playing field for technnologies by removing the unequal subsidies to fossil fuels and taxing carbon emissions), decentralized systems, and smart design, we can avoid global meltdown of either the nuclear or carbon dioxide variety.
Trained as an architect, Cameron M. Burns has written widely on energy and energy-related issues and currently serves as staff editor at Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado.
*Editors note: 12/2005: The researchers have revised their figures slightly based on new data, so that they now calculate that the world supply of rich ore would last four years.