In December 2014, an open letter signed by 75 leading conservation scientists called for the environmental community to accept nuclear power as a key part of the global energy mix, not only to reduce greenhouse gas emissions but also to conserve biodiversity.
Nuclear power, they argued, may not be the most "idealistic" energy source, but, when taking into account "objective evidence and pragmatic trade-offs", it could make a "major and perhaps leading" contribution to both mitigating climate change and protecting wildlife.
So what can nuclear offer that renewable energy sources can’t, and has the letter, acknowledged by the two scientists behind it as "controversial", had any impact on the environmental community’s firmly anti-nuclear stance?
More nuclear power plants will be vital to both protect wildlife and address climate change, according to an open letter published on the Brave New Climate blog in December, which was organised by Australia-based ecologists Professor Barry Brook and Professor Corey Bradshaw, and signed by 75 other leading academics in the field, including a former UK Government chief scientist.
"We entreat the conservation and environmental community to weigh up the pros and cons of different energy sources using objective evidence and pragmatic trade-offs, rather than simply relying on idealistic perceptions of what is ‘green’," they wrote.
They stated that it’s too risky to rely solely on renewable energy sources like wind and solar power for replacing fossil fuels because of problems to do with scalability, cost, materials and land use, and said that "the full gamut of electricity-generation sources – including nuclear power" must be deployed to replace fossil fuels "if we are to have any chance of mitigating severe climate change."
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The arguments outlined in the letter were based on a much more comprehensive evaluation of the pros and cons of various power sources entitled Key role for nuclear energy in global biodiversity conservation, which was published by Brook and Bradshaw in the December 2014 issue of industry journal Conservation Biology, and concluded that nuclear performs as well, or better, in all arenas evaluated in the paper (land use, emissions, climate and cost) than renewables, when compared objectively.
"As well as educating the conservation biology community about the potential benefits of nuclear and the need to have a cost-benefit analysis of all energy sources, we wanted to provide an anchor point from which we could write the open letter and garner support from the community," says Brook says of the reasons behind writing the paper, "We felt there was strong support [for nuclear] in the scientific community but we needed something for people to catch on to."
So what does Brook – and what looks to be a growing proportion of the scientific community – believe are the key benefits of nuclear over renewable sources of power?
Firstly, it’s an incredibly concentrated form of energy. "Nuclear energy is the ultimate in concentrated energy and the big advantage of that is that you only need a really tiny amount of it to generate a lot of energy," Brook explains. "Where wind power can generate around 2W per metre squared and the best desert solar around 40W, with nuclear you’re talking about tens of thousands of watts for the same area. That means a very small land footprint and a very small mining footprint, and land use change is the single biggest driver of biodiversity loss."
Hydropower and biomass, for example, which, Brook emphasises, generate the majority of renewable energy globally, are particularly biodiversity-unfriendly, with the former involving the flooding of huge valleys and the latter the clearing of extensive amounts of land for farming. "If the world could run on solar panels and offshore wind, they would be fairly biodiversity-friendly but that’s not the reality of it. And we need to face that," he says.
Nuclear, he adds, is also an economic option, citing the example of the United Arab Emirates, which has opted to go down the nuclear route rather than generating large-scale solar thermal power (despite its hot, desert climate) because it was "the economic choice". "That suggests to me that, at least at the present time, the economics favour nuclear, even in that situation," he says.
Critics remain unconvinced
So how has the paper – and its widely supported accompanying open letter – gone down amongst the staunchly anti-nuclear environmental community? "It’s been a fairly expected reaction," Brook admits.
"No environmental NGO has changed their position."
Indeed, when asked for his reaction to the paper, Greenpeace UK chief scientist Dr Doug Parr responds: "If you look at nuclear and renewables only through the lens of land use, you get a very distorted picture of the pros and cons of both technologies. Once the unsolved issue of radioactive waste, the threat of nuclear proliferation, as well as the up-front costs and construction times, are put into the equation, nuclear energy starts looking like a far less attractive option than renewables."
And Parr certainly hasn’t been the only critic of the paper. Dr Jim Green, national anti-nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia, for example, responded strongly to Brook’s and Bradshaw’s arguments in the December edition of The Ecologist magazine, writing that the nuclear technology cited by the two scientists as the best possible solution to climate change – next generation fast reactors that fully recycle waste and incorporate passive safety systems – "cannot be made to work in the real world".
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Not according to Brook, however. "It’s a technology that has a long history of successful development; it’s just a matter of getting the first one built," he says. "I certainly wouldn’t hold credible the argument that it will never get commercialised, although it may be five, ten, or, worst case, 15 years, until it happens."
In the meantime, though, he stresses, existing commercial nuclear technology still compares favourably to other energy sources. "Our paper was based largely on the idea of using current generation reactors; we just speculated in the discussion that all of these comparisons become a whole lot better when you use next generation reactors," he explains, adding that, when it comes to the nuclear weapons proliferation argument, the link between commercial nuclear energy and the decision of a nation state to create nuclear weapons is "not a strong one at all".
Scientists’ hope: part of the solution
Brook is under no illusion, however, that environmental NGOs are likely to change their position after one open letter, nor was that his intention. Indeed, while he and his colleagues advocate a substantial role for nuclear in the future energy mix, Brook says that reaching a point where environmentalists have a neutral view of nuclear, and accept it as at least part of the solution, would be an excellent first step.
"It will take time but what I suspect will happen is that an increasing proportion of the membership [of environmental NGOs] will gradually change their minds, perhaps coming out with a neutral statement towards nuclear," he predicts.
"That’s essentially what we’re arguing in our paper. Although we are strongly pro-nuclear, in that we think nuclear will be a big part of the solution, what we’re really arguing for is that environmental organisations need to recognise that it will be some part of the solution. We haven’t got there yet but what I hope we’ve done is plant the seeds of doubt."