What if nuclear power was invented today?

If it was invented and unveiled to the world today, there would be celebrations.

Picture an alternative 2017. Just like today, the world is gradually meeting the challenge of global development and facing the need to slash emissions of carbon dioxide at the same time. Hydroelectricity has helped but it’s hard to scale up, and its expansion is costing humanity scarce rainforest and river ecosystems.

Renewable technologies, like wind and solar, have made leaps and bounds. But overcoming the challenge of their variability makes the prospect of an all-renewable system daunting, and the gains seem constantly outstripped by overall growth in coal, gas and oil.

Then, the breakthrough is announced.

“We have devised a power system that can liberate us, all of us, from our dependence on fossil carbon,” a team of researchers announces.

“It provides all the scale and reliability of coal, but with a fuel that is not based on carbon at all. For the first time, humanity has a fuel that doesn’t burn. No carbon and no combustion means no carbon dioxide”.

At this point maybe you’re questioning how this alternative 2017 differs from today. Well this ‘new’ power source is nuclear fission.

“Using this fuel produces no air pollution at all. Communities living nearby will enjoy clean air. The entire process happens inside a sealed unit at the same scale as a normal power station but it only needs to be refueled about once every two years”.

“The really remarkable thing is, we also know how to get 150 times more energy from it with some recycling effort. It’s a total game changer, and we only see it getting better from here with further innovation and development”.

How would we respond to the news that we had a fuel that didn't burn, and a power station without a chimney?

How would we respond to the news that we had a fuel that didn't burn, and a power station without a chimney?

Nuclear power…to date, it's the only proven, scalable solution to displacing coal, oil and gas from the generation of electricity. But of course, it hasn’t just been invented.

Fission for electricity emerged after fission was first used for weapons. It’s a legacy that has seemed near impossible to shake. At that time, human-driven climate change was not even broadly understood, let alone the policy driver it is today. Founder of environmental NGO Bright New World, Ben Heard, muses that nuclear power was probably invented “before we really needed it”.

“I was in a panel in the United States and we were asked about how we might change the people’s perspective of nuclear energy when the thought occurred to me. Nuclear power is astounding technology, held back by outdated legacies. Were it invented today it would be embraced as a phenomenally environmentally friendly energy source”.

“Right now, we are in some danger of hating nuclear power out of existence in many parts of the world. That’s going to damage the future because fossil fuels will just retain and grow their dominance of the energy system in the vacuum that creates”.  

The counter-argument in the real-life 2017 is that renewable energy technologies will affect a takeover of not only nuclear but also fossil fuels. Heard dismisses that idea as more fallacy than fact, with some powerful research published this year in Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews.

“We examined 24 such studies at various scales. We found not only huge gaps in demonstrating that it even works, but a huge reliance on two really damaging technologies: hydroelectricity and biomass.”

Growing numbers of hydro electric facilities around the world have profound impacts on riverine environments, including important ecocystems like the Amazon. PHOTOGRAPH BY NOAH FRIEDMAN-RUDOVSKY, THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX

Growing numbers of hydro electric facilities around the world have profound impacts on riverine environments, including important ecocystems like the Amazon. PHOTOGRAPH BY NOAH FRIEDMAN-RUDOVSKY, THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX

While classed as renewables, the researchers argue they are unsustainable, with Heard saying, “At the necessary scale their impact on ecosystems would be a profoundly destructive one, even after assuming unrealistic cuts to energy demand that would likely entrench poverty”.

“There is just no need for that. Pairing nuclear fission with proven renewable technologies at smaller scales can generate feasible, reliable energy systems anywhere in the world”.

“We need to start loving nuclear technologies back into the picture if we really want to make a brighter world. That requires a reinvention of environmentalism itself, based on people who are prepared to learn about nuclear as though for the first time”.

Taking that step back can yield some surprises. When Electricity Map launched their real-time tool for visualizing which electricity systems are clean and which are dirty, the green colour didn’t belong to vaunted renewable champion Germany. Even Denmark fluxes from green to brown depending (quite literally) on whether the wind blows. The steady green champions are Finland, Sweden, France and Ontario — the common thread? Nuclear power. Norway joins those ranks with its huge hydro electric resource.

“It’s the overlooked evidence that stares us in the face” remarks Heard. “Decarbonising electricity supplies may be a challenge, but it’s no riddle. Provided nuclear is included, mixing that with locally advantageous renewable resources provides a proven answer. Or, if the renewable opportunity is weak, nuclear can nearly do it all if required”.

In deciding what is a green technology, how did we come to ignore the evidence about nuclear power that has been staring us in the face?

In deciding what is a green technology, how did we come to ignore the evidence about nuclear power that has been staring us in the face?

While evidence of the like provided by Electricity Map is hard to deny, thoughts inevitably turn to nuclear waste. Alone, those two words don’t tend to be popular. In sequence they provoke a visceral response of fear and loathing. Heard sees a certain irony in that.

“For one thing, it’s recyclable. There is about 25 times more energy in that spent fuel when we want it, and when we do that the material we are left with only has a 30 year half-life”.

“For another thing, it is only an issue because we actually can take responsibility for it. Fossil fuels never faced that hurdle. It is simply impossible to contain that much polluting gas every day. So we don’t even bother trying. We permit pollution on one hand, and fear responsible waste management on the other. If we could start anew, people might regard that very differently”. 

“There is a huge difference between waste and pollution. All energy sources have waste streams. Some cause pollution, which is what happens when we throw our waste into the environment without care or concern”.

It’s an intriguing concept. Around the world, women in pregnancy are advised to avoid consumption of certain type of fish due to concerns of contaminants like mercury. But why and how is the mercury even in the fish? While it occurs naturally, the elevated levels of concern to would-be mothers comes from burning coal. The effect is so great that the recent trend away from coal in the United States (driven by low prices of fossil gas) is already causing rapidly declining mercury levels in Atlantic Bluefin tuna.

Coal became the everyday environmental catastrophe that we learned to live with. Photo via Reuters.

Coal became the everyday environmental catastrophe that we learned to live with. Photo via Reuters.

But air pollution reaches beyond the impact of toxins on the unborn. In 2014, the World Health Organisation declared air pollution the world’s largest single environmental health risk, estimated to be responsible for 7 million premature deaths every year. That’s seven times greater than HIV-AIDS and about 15 times more than malaria.

“Cleaning up the air we breathe prevents noncommunicable diseases as well as reduces disease risks among women and vulnerable groups, including children and the elderly,” says Dr Flavia Bustreo, WHO Assistant Director-General Family, Women and Children’s Health. “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.”

Yet for ionising radiation, the bogey man of nuclear power, the World Health Organisation doesn’t even allocate an estimate. They highlight instead that 98% of the artificial radiation exposure comes from medical procedures – radiation as a diagnostic tool and a life-saving treatment.

These facts lead to a sobering question. Has environmentalism, for all its passion, botched the priorities when it comes to nuclear technology and harmed us all along the way?

“Sadly, yes” says Heard, “and I’m saddest because as a young environmentalist I was a small part of that”.

“Environmentalism fought one of our most beneficial technologies to a near standstill, leaving us exposed to pollution of far greater harm and sending global greenhouse emissions skyrocketing”.

Ben Heard of Bright New World (centre) with Kirsty Gogan (leftt, Energy for Humanity) and Finnish ecomodernist author Rauli Partanen (right), at the Paris climte talks, 2015.

Ben Heard of Bright New World (centre) with Kirsty Gogan (leftt, Energy for Humanity) and Finnish ecomodernist author Rauli Partanen (right), at the Paris climte talks, 2015.

“For example, had the China boom of the 1990s and 2000s been driven by uranium instead of coal, we would have a much cleaner world today, with decades more up our sleeve to decarbonize the rest of our energy. But nuclear power wasn’t ready, in part because its development in places like the United States and United Kingdom had been ground to a halt by the green movement”.

“We need so much more clean energy. We need it for the poor of today and tomorrow. We need it to cut the impacts of our food and agriculture systems and give land back to nature. We need it to create new, clean fuels for transport and industry. We have lost crucial decades, but a fightback is under way. Nuclear technology remains innovative, and new environmental organisations like Bright New World are taking up the fight for the future”.

So, it seems that a different environmentalism exists, one born of a different era, with a new generation of leaders and innovators. It will need a powerful tribe to make the difference it seeks to make. But it seems well worth it.

Kayla Paradiso, for Bright New World

Ben HeardComment