How Nuclear Fears Set Back Carbon Reduction

By Editors

Rely on a mathematician to make the most logical arguments.

On The Energy Collective this week, Geoffrey Russell, an Australian mathematician, makes an exhaustive case for why the fear-mongering over nuclear power has produced the worst outcome for dealing with climate change. Russell argues that nothing except substituting nuclear for fossil fuels is going to be able to reduce carbon emissions and that the countries that have pursued nuclear - France, Belgium, Switzerland, Sweden and Finland - have far lower emissions than those that have ostentatiously pursued solar and wind at much greater costs. In particular, he argues that switching to natural gas has been a dead end, since it produces only marginal and short-term results while distracting from the more important task of building a nuclear infrastructure.

Russell's main contention comes form the above combination of charts. He is trying to compound quite a bit of information into it, but it's worth trying to follow.

The important figures are in the black bar graphs at the lower left. These show the number of grams of carbon dioxide emitted per kilowatt-hour of electricity. Russell charts only France German and Australia because he is trying to persuade Australia to lift its national ban on nuclear construction.  But the point is clear - France does by far the best.  The world average is 500 g/kW-h with the US well above that (not shown).  Germany, for all its solar and wind efforts, is only slightly below the world average.  France, with 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear, is only 1/5th the world average.

The rest of the chart is intended to show that nuclear construction can be accomplished in a short space of time, even by smaller nations. The red bars below indicate national population in 1980. Russell picks this date as the midpoint in the two-decade spurt in nuclear construction that followed the 1970s Energy Crisis. The blue bars above the gray-shaded area are intended to show the rapid increase in electrical output from nuclear construction. The United States, for example, more than doubled nuclear output from 1981 to 1991, even in the aftermath of Three Mile Island.

Finally, the comparative figures for solar and wind are included as chartreuse and gold bars. Only Germany has output enough for an illustration.  The chartreuse represents both solar and wind and shows that there has been a fair amount of construction in Germany, with 2011 output matching the nuclear output of 1981. The small contribution of solar alone is represented by the tiny gold bar in the lower gray area. 

Russell makes some of his points much better in the text. For instance, he takes apart the recent study by John Ten Hoeve and Mark Jacobson that - using the "no safe dose" hypothesis - estimated the number of cancers around the world that would result from Fukushima. Russell shows even under worst-case assumptions, the number of people living in the vicitinity of Fukushima who would have died of cancer if the area had not been evacuated was 180. But the evacuation itself caused 600 deaths. So 600 people died in order to save 180 from contracting cancer sometime over the next 80 years.

There's much, much more in this lengthy piece. Russell's analysis makes up one of the better efforts in recent years at comparing energy strategies.

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