13 Mar 2012

Coming to Terms with the N word

N is for nuclear.

Press that button and it changes everything. You enter a possible age of abundance and everything you have previously held dear becomes vaguely pointless. I suddenly feel myself turning a very pale green indeed, a milky eau-de-nil at best. And I wonder whether the main gist of what I have been writing about for the past twenty years has any relevance anymore.

It all comes down to risk. Is radiation more or less dangerous than carbon dioxide? It's all about dosage. Neither seems to be remotely harmful at low levels. At high levels, both are deadly. So it comes down to the lesser of two evils and, for me, the evidence is that it is better to risk radiation poisoning. And Fukushima has simply reinforced that view: it was nasty but and as yet no one has died. If that's the worst that can happen, then it's an acceptable risk, especially when set against the alternative.

I realise I am treading in the footsteps of many other dissident thinkers (Brand, Monbiot, Lynas are the obvious ones, and there are many more) and I'm certainly not feeling remotely original in all this. But as yet, no one seems to have really thought through the consequences of embracing a nuclear future. Because if you can live with one new nuke, you can live with 20, and maybe even 200.

And at that level, you can produce potentially all the energy we in the UK could ever dream of consuming and still leave enough to heat every house, office, school, hospital and swimming pool in the country all year long with the windows wide open. And surplus electricity could be used to manufacture fuels to power our cars and planes. And all of it without adding any CO2 to the atmosphere. And no messing about with carbon capture and storage, geo engineering, forests of wind turbines or seas of PV.

We could have a Jetson's lifestyle for a cost of around £600 per household per annum for the next 40 years. That would be enough to construct 5 nukes a year at around £4 billion per unit, which is what this overbudget one in Finland is costing. It would also create around half a million jobs. Compare that to the Green Deal! And if £600 sounds like a lot, remember that the power itself is very cheap to produce as about 98% of the cost of a new reactor is down to safety features, so £600 would end up being your annual fuel bill which is a lot less than you pay now (I bet). This is a technology that we have now at a cost we can afford.

You see, it changes everything.

And you can begin to see that darker greens than me will not like this option. Not because nuclear power is an unacceptable risk — funnily enough, no one says that about nuclear medicine which is the backbone of every cancer department in the world — but because it renders the whole world of sustainability and low carbon living pointless. In fact it plays into the hands of those right-wing tossers who have been throwing abuse at us for years for being closet socialists. You know, the ones who celebrated "Climategate." Maybe they have a point? Maybe we've all been posturing in a self-important way?

We may even be able to readily solve the CO2 problem without nuclear. I saw an interesting talk this afternoon from MIT Professor Dan Nocera about artificial photosynthesis which, he reckons, is much the most efficient way to store energy — beats batteries and pumped storage by an order of magnitude. He reckons that it may soon be commercially viable on a very small scale and that it could be powered by domestic solar cells, solving the old conundrum about not having energy when the sun isn't shining. Tata Steel have already licenced the research with a view to rolling it out in India.

OK, it's much greener, in the trad sense, than nuclear power, but the issue is that if it solves the problem easily, then we could still be facing an age of low carbon energy abundance. That's unsettling. Very.