September 11, 2005
What will happen to our civilisation if we have no power?
Could we survive?
How would you behave if the lights flickered, dimmed and then went out for good?
These questions are no longer the stuff of science fiction. In our lifetimes, possibly as early as the next decade, the world will begin to run out of oil.
In the interim, oil prices are likely to rise, governments and regimes will come and go and petrol is likely to be rationed.
We will look for alternatives. We will start to burn other stuff – other fossil fuels – to feed our insatiable desire for energy.
What impact will turning the world into a giant pyre have on global warming?
Environmental concerns apart, these other fuels, like oil, are a finite resource ï¿½ so what happens when we run out of things to burn? What will we do then?
This week, we had a number of reports, both domestic and international, focusing on how we might deal with the end of oil, and at the same time reduce carbon emissions to prevent global warming.
The reports focused on a combination of changing our behaviour (shorthand for consuming less) and using alternative, more environmentally-efficient energy sources.
One report cited elephant grass as a viable alternative for Ireland. This is doubtless part of the solution, but the missing link in this discussion is the real elephant in the corner, which nobody is prepared to talk about for fear of eternal damnation.
In Ireland, we are all afraid of the N word. This word cannot be used in polite conversation. It is a word so vile, foul and degrading, it automatically puts you outside the pale.
The N word breaks all the rules. So let’s just whisper it. Shush, quietly now. . . nuclear. That wasn’t so bad, was it? Say it again, nuclear. Yes, nuclear power. Is it time to revisit nuclear power? Given the depletion of the world’s resources and the fact that carbon emissions are unsustainable, nuclear power is a logical alternative.
The very word ï¿½nuclear’ scares us. Its lexicon is contaminated. It is associated with Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Cold War. As bread goes with butter, nuclear goes with warhead.
In most of our minds, nuclear signifies death and destruction on a monumental scale. If not warheads, missiles and bombs, the word nuclear conjures up images of accidents, leaks, fallout and horrendously deformed babies.
But this is only half the story, and while we shouldn’t dismiss concerns about safety, we should also open our minds to the possibility that nuclear power is part of the energy solution, not part of the problem.
For example, countries with the highest environmental standards in Europe, such as Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, France and Germany rely significantly – and in France’s case overwhelmingly – on nuclear power.
These are not irresponsible countries that would willingly put their citizens at risk. Indeed, there has never been an accident in any of these countries.
There has also, despite all the hype, never been a nuclear accident in Britain.
In fact, according to Professor Robert Winston, the president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science that had its annual bash in Dublin last week, “more deaths resulted from Markham Main [a Yorkshire colliery] than all the accidents and power stations put together, including Chernobyl”.
Most scientists agree with Winston.
Nuclear power is safe and, when reactors are well maintained and standards are high, nuclear power has proved itself to be one of the safest ways to generate energy.
Another argument in support of nuclear power is that it is environmentally much sounder than burning stuff. If we are to achieve significant reduction in carbon emissions and maintain our lifestyles, nuclear power is an obvious candidate.
It is considerably cleaner than fossil fuel and much less damaging to the environment. We harm our environment more from burning peat in Ireland than we would if we had a nuclear power station heating every home in the country.
Internationally, the planet would be a much cleaner place if large countries like China, India and Iran used nuclear power exclusively, rather than burning coal.
With respect to global warming and environmental degradation, others have made the argument that, even in the worst case scenario, the impact of a nuclear accident is localised, whereas the impact of global warming and air pollution from burning fossil fuels affects the whole planet. This seems harsh, but it is true.
Even figures from Chernobyl bear this out. In the 19 years since the accident, 4,000 people have died. In contrast, each year respiratory disease that results directly from coal-based air pollution kills many more.
In terms of nuclear waste and decommissioning older nuclear plants, Finland and Sweden are introducing technical solutions that satisfy most of the domestic opposition to nuclear power. It is fair to say, given their environmental records, that, if it is good enough for the Scandinavians, it should be good enough for us.
The points above could be termed the ï¿½it’s not as bad as you think’ arguments in support of putting nuclear power back on the table. While they may not persuade everyone, they are at least an antidote to the blanket hysteria that surrounds the N word.
The other arguments are simply the ï¿½we have no alternative’ position. Oil is running out. The regimes that control oil are becoming increasingly unstable and might not last the shock of running out of black gold. So supplies might be unstable even before it runs out.
Also the price of oil will rise prohibitively, so some other form of energy must be found.
The other ï¿½no alternative’ argument is the simple contention that nuclear power, counterintuitive as it may sound, is environmentally friendly. Either we go nuclear or we risk climate change on a devastating scale. To reduce carbon emissions, either we switch to nuclear power in some form or we change our entire consumer-driven society and its growth-based economic benchmarks.
Maybe, in an environmentally compromised future, a contracting economy will be regarded as the objective of government policy, but, for the moment, the obsession with growth reigns, and with it, the compulsive desire for energy.
While there is no doubt that concerns about nuclear energy are real, they will not be made clearer by regarding nuclear power as heresy. In Ireland, we need to explore every avenue and close the door to none.
In 2020, there is every possibility that we will be a nuclear state and, if not, we will definitely be importing nuclear energy from elsewhere. We might as well start discussing this eventuality now.