The Environmental Benefits of Clean Nuclear Energy

Environmentalists now consider nuclear energy as clean

by Bruno Comby

 

As a dedicated environmentalist, I consider it paradoxical to see some environmental groups opposed to nuclear energy. Green opposition to nuclear power plants is in fact a major historical mistake. Their announced concerns are for health, safety, and the protection of nature. In these respects nuclear power is by far superior to the alternatives - burning fossil fuels (coal, petroleum and gas) which pollute the atmosphere, wind turbines or the use of solar photovoltaic cells for the production of electricity, and biomass (growing crops to be burned and burning crop residues) which alter the landscape and produce only minute amounts of energy.

It is a fundamental fact that population growth and increasing standard of living are precipitating an energy crisis which is not being met, and which cannot be met in the long term, say in the lifetime of our children and grandchildren, without recourse to nuclear fission.

Well-designed, well-constructed, well-operated and well-maintained nuclear energy is very clean, safe, durable and economical.

It produces little carbon dioxide, and no sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxides; these are produced in vast quantities when fossil fuels are burned, and they are injected (dumped) into the atmosphere.

Unlike solar cells, wind turbines and growing biomass which cover large areas, a nuclear power station is very compact; it occupies typically the area of a football stadium and its surrounding parking lots.

While a little carbon dioxide is emitted in construction (but the same can be said of windmills and photovoltaic cells), none is emitted in operation; thus nuclear power makes a minimum contribution to the greenhouse effect.

Nuclear power produces a very small volume of waste, which is completely contained and decays spontaneously.

On the other hand, many industrial wastes are chemically stable and eternal, not contained properly, and produced in great quantities. In general, industry could greatly benefit the environment by applying to industrial and chemical wastes the methods currently applied to the management of nuclear wastes.

Renewable energies should not be excluded from our consideration. It should be recognised that they have important niche roles to play, although their industrial potential is only a small percentage of the global demand in energy which must be met otherwise.

Fear of the unknown is the merchandise of the anti-nuclear organizations. They preach fear of radiation in general, fear of radioactive waste in particular, fear of another major accident such as Three Mile Island or Chernobyl, and fear of nuclear weapons proliferation. Their campaigns depend upon the fact that the public is inadequately informed of the true health effects of radiation, and of the fact that radiation is present everywhere in the environment. They take advantage of a widespread but mistaken interpretation of the studies of the health of the survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing (the LNT hypothesis), that every ionizing event is deleterious to the health, and the related concept of collective dose. A moderate amount of irradiation is beneficial, if not essential, to life.

There are those who have fallen in love with the pristine beauty of solar cells and wind turbines but refuse to accept the observation that they are quantitatively incapable of supplying a significant share of the energy required by an industrial civilization.

There are those who profess conservation, which in the face of population growth can delay the crisis by a few years at most.

And there are those who seek a "simpler" life. The lifestyle in developed countries (North America, Europe, Japan) could indeed evolve to become less energy-intensive and still maintain a good standard of living, but this evolution requires time (decades at least) and in the meanwhile large amounts of energy will still be necessary to face the increasing needs of China, India, Brazil, Africa, and other developing countries.

The only serious argument against nuclear power is the fear of nuclear weapons proliferation, that is, that some separated military-grade plutonium, or some highly enriched uranium may fall into mischievious hands, and be fashioned into a bomb. But at this point in history, it can be observed that not even one of the States possessing nuclear weapons reached that condition by the use of commercial nuclear power plants. However we should remain vigilant in this regard, and the IAEA's non-proliferation missions should be reinforced.

It is difficult to attribute the anti-nuclear position of the greens to ignorance. We have spoken briefly with one of their principal science advisors following his public statement that "we must reduce the emission of carbon dioxide by all means possible"; We asked him whether that included nuclear energy, and he quietly said "We're not all stupid." His smile was almost audible over the telephone wire.

Trends are changing. An increasing number of environmentalists now join EFN, the association of Environmentalists For Nuclear Energy (www.ecolo.org) which already gathers over 9000 members and supporters in 56 countries. A new paradigm is appearing as time passes : the old-fashioned anti-nuclear trend is plunging, and pro-nuclear environmentalists are now in the headlines. Recently, Pr. James Lovelock (FRS), a member of EFN, author of the Gaia theory which considers Gaia (the Earth) as a self-sustained living organism, unanimously respected in the environmental community as the father of the development of environmental consciousness since the 1960's, was on the front pages in the international press (including "The Independent" in the UK and "Le Monde" in France) saying that "Nuclear power is the only green solution". And my good friend Patrick Moore, founder of Greenpeace in 1971, approves our point of view and the environmental benefits of nuclear energy for the protection of the environment. He has accepted to join our organization as the Honorary Chairman of our Canadian branch, EFN-Canada.

The are very strong environmental reasons to be in favor of civilian nuclear power. And of course we must remain vigilant as regards nuclear safety. The opposition of environmental organizations to civilian applications of nuclear energy is fading away, and will in the future be revealed as among the greatest mistakes of our times. If it is well and safely managed, nuclear energy is very clean and provides the energy needed by our industrial energy without being dependent on dwindling reserves of fossil fuels, and without emitting any CO2 into the atmosphere.

We invite all our Russian friends to join our organization - www. ecolo.org - to translate the documents on our web site in Russian language, and to help us create a local branch of Environtmentalists For Nuclear Energy in Russia (EFN-RUSSIA).

Bruno Comby, EFN founder and president (http://www.ecolo.org ), is the author of 10 books published in 15 languages on environmentalism and healthy living including the bestseller "Environmentalists For Nuclear Energy" (published by TNR Editions). He is a graduate of the Ecole Polytechnique in France, and holds a postgraduate qualification as nuclear physicist from the Superior National University of Advanced Technology in Paris (ENSTA). For more information visit : http://www.comby.org

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