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Why a green future needs nuclear power - front cover image. By Mark Lynas, published by UIT Cambridge / Green Books.

Why a green future needs nuclear power - front cover image. By Mark Lynas, published by UIT Cambridge.

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Why a green future needs nuclear power - or not

Jonathon Porritt

26th March 2014

Jonathon Porritt finds Mark Lynas's latest pro-nuclear tome 'gratifyingly short' and reasonably open-minded. But Lynas falls into the trap of seeing nuclear technologies as fast developing, while renewables are stuck - when the reverse is the case!

It's as if all the potential innovation on new nuclear design was available right now, whereas he writes about renewables as if they will be forever stuck right where they are today.

It was with something of a sinking heart that I picked up Nuclear 2.0, the latest piece of pro-nuclear advocacy from Mark Lynas.

This stuff just makes me grumpy, particularly the banal repetition that one usually finds of half-truths about the history of nuclear power, and the crazed projections of how nuclear power is the answer to all our problems.

But I have to admit that Nuclear 2.0 is better than most - and gratifyingly short.

For one thing, Lynas is up for a full-on renewables revolution, and is reasonably objective in his treatment of renewables today. For instance, he dismisses out of hand the grotesque misrepresentations about the question of intermittency so beloved of the anti-renewables lobby.

And his account of the history of the anti-nuclear movement is at least accurate - if unbelievably simplistic.

Where are these 'eco-romantics'?

Indeed, he tries throughout Nuclear 2.0 to be ever so reasonable. But he can't stop himself occasionally lapsing into fatuous 'strawman-isms'. For example:

"eco-romantics may fantasize about the pre-fossil fuels economy of the past, but the reality of pre-industrial agrarian society really was slavery, war, famine, disease and a short average lifespan for everyone except a very privileged aristocratic few."

I've never met any eco-romantic of that kind!

And he can't help but portray himself and other pro-nuclear advocates as totally objective, marshalling 'the facts' as dispassionately as possible - whilst badging opponents of nuclear power as either sad victims of dishonest anti-nuclear propaganda, or dogma-driven ideologues.

Fast-breeders and LFTRs - brittle optimism

And all the pro-nuclear exaggerations are still there. He writes about a new generation of thorium reactors, for instance, as if they were already built, commissioned and generating electricity.

Fast breeders are just around the corner - as they've been for the last 40 years. And the next generation of nuclear reactors all offer that promise of 'never again' if people are still worried about a repeat of Fukushima or Chernobyl.

He weakens his own case by such brittle and shiny optimism. On Small Modular Reactors, for instance, there may be some new things to discover here, although there's already a lot of knowledge about the clear limitations on these technologies.

But governments might understandably be keen to commission new research to assess just how feasible civilian deployment of such reactors might be.

The technology revolutions are renewable, not nuclear

It's as if all the potential innovation on new nuclear design was available right now, whereas he writes about renewables as if they will be forever stuck right where they are today - with no prospect of further innovation.

To be honest, this is as much ignorance as it is propaganda, and if he'd looked into the innovation pipeline for every kind of renewable energy technology as closely as he has for 'next generation nuclear', he might even recognise the biggest single flaw in his own argument:

"The truth is that for the next decade at least, only a minor - though, one hopes, rapidly rising - proportion of the energy we need can plausibly come from wind and solar."

That's true up to a point - but it depends what you mean by "minor"! Throughout that decade, the costs of solar and other renewables will continue to fall, efficiencies will continue to rise, there will be far greater flexibility in how we use renewables through smart grids and dramatic improvements in batteries and other storage technologies.

By contrast, a new EPR in 2024 will be using pretty much the same technology as an EPR in 2014 - or even in 2004.

Short if not always sweet

And there are many other problems about Nuclear 2.0. His 21 lines on proliferation don't even begin to do justice to this critical issue. His section on economics is a bit of a joke. And people's concerns about nuclear waste are dismissed as totally baseless, without any serious coverage.

To be fair, a lot of that is down to the decision to keep it all short and accessible - and he's certainly succeeded in that goal.

And he shouldn't be attacked for continuing to ask those environmentalists (such as myself) who remain resolutely opposed to nuclear power if their opposition is still based on sound foundations - which I still believe it to be.

 


 

Jonathon Porritt has been an environmental campaigner since 1974, and is still hard at it nearly 40 years on. His latest book is The World we Made.

The book. Nuclear 2.0: Why a Green Future Needs Nuclear Power by Mark Lynas, published UIT Cambridge.

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