I have recently become convinced by the pro-nuclear arguments. Here are three points I offer in support.
I – TIGHT PROFIT MARGINS ON A PER-WATT BASIS LEAD TO CORNER-CUTTING
One point is simply that the EROEI on renewables is so tight that corners will be cut. It turns out that the Chinese dominate the solar industry
by virtue of very high tolerance for releasing toxic chemicals into the local environment. The costs we see now that are so widely celebrated are supported by an implicit subsidy of China ruining their own landscape and their own health. I am not sure about the scale of this pollution, but given the scale of the production, it is likely vast.
By contrast, the energy profit of nukes in normal operation is immense. The nuclear industry can therefore afford and ought to support a very high level of rigor in safety and environmental protection.
I realize this is counter-intuitive, and I haven’t seen anybody make this argument. But I find it hard to argue against.
II – THE NUCLEAR WASTE ISSUE ALREADY EXISTS
We should have thought of this problem before deploying nukes in the first place. The costs of managing this issue already exist. The issue must be dealt with regardless of whether nuclear scales up. Credible top-notch engineers tell us that most of what we now consider nuclear waste can be consumed as fuel in new processes. Just on the basis of the waste issue, it’s madness not to pursue this with vigor.
III – THE LAND FOOTPRINT ISSUE
Although this is Shellenberger’s hobby horse, and Shellenberger can be mightily obtuse, this doesn’t mean he’s wrong.
This two-part video, presented by Saul Griffith, a renewables advocate, actually were what tipped me over to accepting the point that real estate is crucial to a pure-renweables solution:
(part 1, less germane to my points is here: https://www.themonthly.com.au/video/2013/03/24/1364105156/personal-and-global-view-energy-and-climate-saul-griffith-p1 )
It’s well worth your time, even though I take the opposite message from it than the one he is sending.
He starts with the following optimistic assumptions:
1) Global energy growth can be stopped at present levels, limiting the amount of renewables to come online to be the amount needed to replace existing production.
2) International equity is necessary, so per capita energy consumption must be redistributed. This amounts to a voluntary 80% cut in energy usage in the west. He claims to have managed this himself and expects others to do the same, neglecting that he is wealthy, unusually skilled, and unusually motivated.
Given those optimistic bases, he concludes that the land surface needed to support the renewables needed is about equivalent to the area of West Australia or about quadruple the area of Texas.
He points out that the issues with this are not only with allocating the land, but that the area is large enough that we must consider direct ecological impact.
If you believe that the west will not reduce its consumption and the rest of the world will be allowed to catch up, the land area needed is clearly quintupled, amounting to roughly the whole area of the USA or Australia.
If, net of intensity improvements, there is any further growth in the west, you’re starting to look at the industrialization of the entire surface of the world in this century. This is not an ecologically sound trajectory to say the least.
I do not believe that the west has the capacity to abandon growth very soon (although it must do so eventually), and I don’t think a solution that allows growth in the west at the cost of poverty and desperation in the rest of the world can be sustained, or indeed, tolerated (on ethical grounds).
This has convinced me that renewables do not realistically suffice and a strong push on nuclear power is necessary. We are not going to restrain our desires fast enough nor commit our resources to alternatives with enough urgency.