Environmentalism’s Merchants of Doubt

Antinuclear Sentiment Brings Coal-Fired Future

After clear warnings from scientists more than 20 years ago, the issues of human-caused climate change and fossil-fuel-dominated energy should be on the way into the environmental history books. Sadly, they’re not, which is why we need a new global movement of nuclear support.

A bit like the CFC/ozone dilemma, we should by now be enjoying disputes about just how the success came about, and focusing attention on more challenging sources of emissions.

What happened instead? A denial machine that cut its teeth working for the tobacco industry moved on to climate change. Climate change denial took off as the vested interests did what they do best. In this they found a most unexpected ally: environmentalism and the emergent paradigm of sustainability.

With the roots of the movement being more strongly defined as anti-nuclear than anti-fossil fuels, environmentalism effectively pulled uranium from the table. Were it not for their opposition, uranium might have powered the boom of the developing world in the 90s and 00s while also gradually re-powering the developed world towards zero-carbon energy generation.

Instead environmentalism backed technologies that failed to resemble what they were intended to displace. Instead of commercially mature, high-volume, and highly reliable generators that ran on a dense fuel source, they supported commercially immature, small, and unreliable generators that worked on intermittent energy sources.

With this limited approach, success in battling the climate problem hinged more on a conjoined social/technological/economic revolution than what could have been a relatively straight-forward technology revolution. This engendered a combative stance that regarded the big business of big energy as an enemy, rather than a potentially efficient means to get something done.

In the last 25 years global emissions have sky-rocketed beyond expectations, as the path of least resistance for governments was to become ever more well-oiled and coal-fired. Governments and corporations slapped on the green face paint for a couple of decades while fossil fuels carried on providing more and more energy to a growing world.

The success of fossil fuels was greased by the Merchants of Doubt. But it was helped by mixed messages from some streams of environmentalism. While making loud and sustained calls for market-based solutions (such as carbon pricing), the movement supported market manipulations by refusing to countenance an expanded role for uranium, while simultaneously promoting hard targets for renewables.

Ideas for further research and development, which would improve nuclear fission over fossil combustion regarding cost, were (and remain) heretical. This did not reinforce a message of climate urgency.

Worse, the science of nuclear power, and particularly radiation, was subjected to the same techniques of cherry-picking distortions and deliberate misrepresentations as that of the science of climate change, with appalling and immoral abuses of information.

The impact has been devastating. There still exists a widely held belief that expanding electricity generation from nuclear fission poses a comparable or greater threat than climate change. This is a gross miscalculation of risk.

This erroneous framework has powered absurd politics. The 1994 closure of the United States’ advanced reactor program took down the Integral Fast Reactor when at its final demonstration stage. With a capability to recycle 99% of existing spent nuclear fuel and depleted uranium for zero-carbon generation we could now be powering on waste. But a strongly antinuclear administration trumped this possible future.

In 1998, Australia, the world’s largest exporter of uranium, singled out nuclear power for prohibition. Since that time, Australia has implemented a carbon price, a renewable energy target, and all the while kept up our fossil dependence.

The result? Greenhouse emissions from the electricity sector have risen 18%.

In the wake of irrational fears stemming from the Fukushima accident, Germany is shutting down its nuclear capacity. While renewables are growing, these simply cannot keep up with the two-edged sword of a continued growth in demand coupled with the reduction in supply from nuclear. Greenhouse-gas emissions for Germany in 2012 were 1.6% higher than 2011, and they will open 5.3 GW of new coal plants in 2013, while retiring 1 GW of old coal. Is this how environmentalism has come to define success?

As environmentalism fought a two-front war against both nuclear power and climate change, ingenuity in the fossil-fuel sector exploited and shifted towards ever more cheap, carbon-intensive fuel. This powered a period of poverty-reducing economic growth, leaving the developed and developing world alike justifiably loathe to consider a de-powered future. Unfortunately, while objecting stridently to these climate crimes, environmentalism failed to put forward a credible alternate energy pathway.

Now, in 2013, we find ourselves at a new crossroad. The failure is there for all to see in our soaring emissions and warming world. Another 2.5 billion people are in the pipeline: they deserve energy.

Rapid growth in renewable technologies cannot mask the fact that the requirement for energy keeps growing. Coal has barely budged in total global electricity share of around 40% (double that for Australia), while demand grew three and a half times between 1973 and 2010.

That’s why emissions have been soaring despite extraordinary rates of renewable growth. That is why it was sheer folly for environmentalism to preference coal by default. Only embracing nuclear along with renewables can extinguish fossil fuels.

Yet nuclear power remains in the energy no-man’s land of being cheaper than renewables at scale, but more expensive than unabated gas, with large establishment costs. Nuclear power is meeting with success in developing economies.

But the major breakthrough looks increasingly dependent on the success of ‘production line’ small modular reactors (SMR), and the resurgent interest in generation IV fast reactors like the integral fast reactor, or liquid fuelled thorium reactors (LFTR).

As mentioned at the start of this article, we need to see a new global movement of nuclear support. There are a few things that must happen to make this a reality.

First, we need balanced government-led climate strategies with scientific integrity to focus on actual, measurable, and rapid reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions, with a target of zero.

Second, we need rapid deployment of high-volume, zero-carbon technology for direct substitution with fossil fuels. That means picking some winners. Our winners of choice are small modular reactors progressing to the integral fast reactor: proven, zero-carbon, safe, constantly recharged with an inexhaustible supply of fuel through recycling and utilising what is currently known as “nuclear waste”.

We must get these reactors turned out by the dozen to answer every energy need being met by fossil fuels.

May the best technology win. But the approach needs to be firm and hands-on, as time is not on our side.

This requires a sustained early injection of money from a coalition of nations in order to create the manufacturing, distribution, education, security, and skills-base that is absolutely necessary for a 21st-century re-imagining of energy.

Finally, to achieve all this we need a popular movement to embrace nuclear power. The consequent pressure will hopefully force government and industry to respond.

If, 25 years from now, our children look back and see a continuance of the present epic failures in climate and energy policies, it is today’s limited views on sustainability that will stand condemned.

Further Reading

Jessica Lovering, Ted Nordhaus, and Michael Shellenberger, "Out of the Nuclear Closet," September 2012

Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, "Fukushima Boosts Green Case for Nuclear," May 2011

Ted Nordhaus, Michael Shellenberger, and Jesse Jenkins, "Nuclear as Usual: Why Fukushima Will Change Less Than You Think," March 2011

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

Photo Credit: Center for Strategic & International Studies (left); the Anti-Yale blog (right)