Atomic energy? Yes, please

Fri 27 Jul

Want to fight against global warming? Build more nuclear power stations and dump iron into the sea.

"I am in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o'er."

- Shakespeare, Macbeth.

Last year's Fukushima disaster caused a huge reaction against nuclear power in German public opinion, and German public opinion was dead wrong. The real lesson of Fukushima is that we need more nuclear plants, not less. No, seriously. At least according to George Monbiot, one of Britain's most high-profile green campaigners. He watched the crisis unfold, thought carefully about what he was seeing, and decided that there was only one conclusion to be drawn for anyone who was serious about protecting the environment - it was time to advocate nuclear energy.

In a public intervention that stunned his legions of activist followers, Monbiot declared his conversion to nuclear technology, and further stated that this was as a direct result of Fukushima.

"A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation."


If a plant that decrepit could handle almost everything Mother Nature could throw at it with minimal consequences - minimal, that is, by the standards of what could go wrong - then how much more trustworthy are modern facilities with the best safety standards? The challenge of global warming is to reduce CO2 emissions caused by burning fossil fuels. Despite all the investment in solar and wind power and various other clean energy programs, nuclear power remains the number one most comprehensive alternative yet discovered. Maybe it's time to stop worrying and learn to love plutonium.

Monbiot takes this position not with any great enthusiasm, but out of a fear that time is running out. We have known about the reality of man-made global warming for years. There are those in public life who dispute the fact of climate change - such as some who deny it for theological purposes and politicians who pretend to agree with them for electoral purposes - but scientists don't. Most specialists agree on the following: global warming is real, it is accelerating, it is caused by human industrial activity, and the potential long-term consequences range from the merely catastrophic to the outright unthinkable. Yet nothing substantial is being done. More money is spent bailing out banks than fighting against pollution, and international summits are little more than theatre. And as each emissions target is missed, the planet is coming more to the boil.

It may therefore be time for a new approach. Activists such as Monbiot are coming to despair that we will ever succeed in limiting the effects of climate change by a huge collective global effort to re-program our economic behavior and reduce emissions. The moment for that may already have passed, and we could be at or approaching the dreaded "tipping point" when accelerating climate change becomes irreversible.

So what would Plan B look like? One approach gaining traction is "geoengineering" - deliberately manipulating the natural environment on a huge scale to limit the consequences of our own impact upon it. We have made the earth sick, and if a healthier lifestyle isn't going to work, maybe it's time to consider surgery.

One example of geoengineering is to seed the ocean bed with iron. The theory is that this causes a certain type of plankton to grow which suck CO2 out of the atmosphere. When the plankton dies, it sinks to the bottom of the sea and takes the CO2 with it. Think of it as a kind of garbage dump for CO2. For some years, this approach was thought to have been discredited, but a recent study published by the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Bremerhaven suggests otherwise. They have analysed the results of a trial carried out in the southern ocean in 2004 and found that it worked. It is believed that this solution could potentially remove as much as 10% of our emissions from the atmosphere - not enough to solve the problem, but a start.

Of course, many questions still need to be answered. How much iron would be needed, and where does it come from? What are the potential environmental side effects? Nevertheless, this could be an example of a new approach to the challenge of climate change. If we cannot stop ourselves from doing what we have always done - namely, impose ourselves upon our environment and change it - maybe we should continue to do it, but do it differently. Could it be that the solution is not less human intervention in the natural world - but more?

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