An open letter authored by more than 65 biologists calls for conservation groups and efforts to take a step back and rethink their agenda concerning nuclear power, heavily criticized in the past few years following the Fukushima incident. With all its risks and shortcomings, the authors argue, nuclear power is still the most cost-effective “green” solution to toppling fossil fuel and mitigating global warming in the process.

We need nuclear power

Image: Brian Kong

Image: Brian Kong

“Nuclear power – being far the most compact and energy-dense of sources – could also make a major, and perhaps leading, contribution …. It is time that conservationists make their voices heard in this policy area,” they say in the letter which is to be published published next month in the journal Conservation Biology.

The letter is signed by several leading British academics including Lord May of Oxford, a theoretical biologist at Oxford University and former chief scientific adviser; Professor Andrew Balmford, a conservation biologist at Cambridge; and Professor Tim Blackburn, an expert in biodiversity at University College London.  It was organised by Professor Barry Brook of the University of Tasmania and Professor Corey Bradshaw of the University of Adelaide.

Recognising the “historical antagonism towards nuclear energy” among environmentalists, they write: “Much as leading climate scientists have recently advocated the development of safe, next-generation nuclear energy systems to combat climate change, we entreat the conservation and environmental community to weigh up the pros and cons of different energy sources using objective evidence and pragmatic trade-offs, rather than simply relying on idealistic perceptions of what is ‘green’.”

The authors write that solely relying on renewable energy sources likes wind and solar is not enough to tip the energy balance scale off fossil fuel. There needs to be a mix and nuclear power, which has the greatest energy density, shouldn’t be left off. One single golf-ball-sized lump of uranium would supply the lifetime’s energy needs of a typical person, equivalent to 56 tanker trucks of natural gas, 800 elephant-sized bags of coal.

Fear mongering

A quarter of a century has passed since the Chernobyl disaster of April 1986, and the nuclear industry hoped that those 25 largely trouble-free years had gone some way to assuaging the fears of the public. But then a devastating earthquake of 9.0 magnitude hit Japan on 11 March 2011 which took the lives of 20,000. The earthquake triggered huge and menacing 15 meter tsunamis that disabled the power supply and cooling of three Fukushima Daiichi reactors, causing a nuclear accident. There have been no deaths or cases of radiation sickness from the nuclear accident, but over 100,000 people had to be evacuated from their homes to ensure this.

Just 10 people out of 5000 surveyed after the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor in March showed unusually high levels of radiation. To cover the reactors’ radioactive leakage, the Japanese government is currently building a giant wall of ice that will take until March 2015 to build, cost $320 million and use enough power each day to run 3300 Japanese households.

While the Japanese handled this delicate situation masterfully, the world public opinion over nuclear power took a plunge for the worse. Overnight people were rallying and petitioning against nuclear power, deeming it a far too greater risk to bear. Several European nations decided to reduce their reliance on nuclear plants or abandon construction plans for new ones. Germany decided to phase out all nuclear power plants by 2022. Switzerland, not an EU member, decided to cancel plans for new plants and to phase out nuclear power by 2034. France, which currently meets a whooping three quarters of its energy needs with nuclear, wants to scale back the country’s reliance on nuclear energy from 75 percent to 50 percent by 2025.

Setting ideals aside and concentrating on what’s important for everybody

So, is nuclear energy risky? There are proven incidents that suggest great damage can arise as a result of nuclear fallout, but authors of the letter acknowledge this as well. In the end, it’s about compromise.

“Trade-offs and compromises are inevitable and require advocating energy mixes that minimise net environmental damage. Society cannot afford to risk wholesale failure to address energy-related biodiversity impacts because of preconceived notions and ideals,” they said.

Professor Corey told The Independent on Sunday: “Our main concern is that society isn’t doing enough to rein in emissions… Unless we embrace a full, global-scale assault on fossil fuels, we’ll be in increasingly worse shape over the coming decades – and decades is all we have to act ruthlessly.

“Many so-called green organisations and individuals, including scientists, have avoided or actively lobbied against proven zero-emissions technologies like nuclear because of the associated negative stigma,” he said.

“Our main goal was to show – through careful, objective scientific analysis – that on the basis of cost, safety, emissions reduction, land use and pollution, nuclear power must be considered in the future energy mix,” he explained.

As environmental groups call for nuclear power to shut down, meanwhile we’re seeing coal consumption growing – and it’s fast. Since 2003, coal use has increased 9 times faster than wind energy and 40 times that of solar. The American Lung Association and the Clean Air Task Force (CATF) claims that 13,000 people die each year from coal pollution–down from 24,000 in 2004, when less pollution regulation was enforced. In addition to the premature deaths, CATF estimates that every year coal pollution is responsible for 12,000 emergency room visits, 20,000 heart attacks, and over 200,000 asthma attacks. Elsewhere:

So, what we’re currently seeing about 400,000 people dying each year because of coal combustion. That’s EACH year! With this in mind, I believe we have a very strong and convincing argument for keeping nuclear right where it is, if not upscale it altogether and this is exactly the point biologists are trying to make in their letter.

“By convincing leading scientists in the areas of ecological sustainability that nuclear has a role to play, we hope that others opposed to nuclear energy on purely ‘environmental’ – or ideological – grounds might reconsider their positions,” Prof. Corey said.

Clearly, this is no easy debate. Where there’s nuclear power, there’s also the capability for nuclear weapons, and that’s a most frightening thought. We must not be naive either – shutting down all the nuclear power plants in the world won’t magically eliminate the nuclear weapon stockpile of the world. You’ll have to tap into the brains of world leaders and cut the chord for paranoia for that to first happen. Speaking of which, what makes nuclear power so easy to hate may actually be deeply rooted in our psyche. We have little problems burning coal because we’re used to it. We’ve been burning matter in a controlled fashion for tens of thousands of years. We don’t have a problem with fire; but nuclear energy is a whole different matter. Very few people understand how nuclear fission works. Instead, what most people get to see are these huge reactors that are waiting to blow in any minute into a mushroom cloud, which is obviously absurd.