Intelligence² Nuclear Debate – It’s Got To Be Nuclear

I attended the recent Intelligence² debate – It’s Got To Be Nuclear – held at the Royal Geographical Society in Kensington. You can listen to the full audio of the debate and subsequent Q&A session at the link above.

The format was setup for yet another pointless debate between advocates for Nuclear and those for Renewables. I’ll get really excited on the day the hold the debate entitled “Clean Coal: Naive Optimism or Marketing Scam”. Even a poorly framed debate can produce some interesting points so I went along anyway.

After Tony Curzon Price had finished up the introductions, proceedings were opened with a statement by Mark Lynas. You can read the whole thing on Mark’s site. The basic thrust of his argument was that the risks of nuclear accidents have been largely over-stated and not put into context with the risks of other energy sources. He also made the point that this shouldn’t be a choice between renewables and nuclear. We will need both if we are to successfully tackle climate change.

Next up was Craig Bennett from Friends of the Earth. He started off by claiming that pro-nuclear advocates frame the debate as being a choice between nuclear power or climate change. Bennett then brought forth a large stack of reports that he claimed proved that we don’t need nuclear to meet our climate change goals and proceeded to drop them one after the other onto the bench as a rhetorical flourish. The problems of intermittency were glossed over with assertion that smart grids would solve everything (apparently by using electric cars as grid storage). He conflated fuel storage for conventional power sources with energy storage for dealing with renewable intermittency. To continue in the vein he asserted that energy efficiency could make up a big part of our energy production. Bennett then moved on from the “we don’t need nuclear” part of his argument to “nuclear is bad”. Apparently nuclear diverts attention and resources away from renewables and energy efficiency. Exactly how this happens wasn’t clear. He also made some jingoistic assertions about nuclear and the need for imports. I will confess I must have missed the burgeoning indigenous solar panel and wind turbine manufacturing industry. To round things up Bennet characterised nuclear as “old-fashioned” technology and linked it to nuclear weapons proliferation. In this entire section the only thing he said that struck me as plausible was the claim that the costs of nuclear power have not come down in 50 years.

The pro-nuclear response was given by Malcolm Grimston a visiting researcher at Imperial College. Grimston spent most of his time directly rebutting Bennett’s statement. He drove home the point that most of the growth in energy demand will be in the developing world where energy efficiency won’t make much of a difference. He also pointed out that 7/8ths of the world’s traded energy is from fossil fuels. Any sensible policy needs to deal with how to remove that.
Grimston also took on Bennett’s assertions about the intermittancy of wind. He pointed out that it is not unusual to see week long periods in the UK where wind production is below 1% because of large-scale weather patterns. This is what is meant by intermittancy, there are times when for external reasons an entire energy source will be unavailable. On thus subject of efficiency Grimston pointed out that energy production has massively increased in efficiency over the course of the 20th century and hadn’t resulted in a decrease in fuel use. He mentioned that the explanation for this was Jevons Paradox.
Commenting on the safety aspects of Fukushima, he mentioned that all the nuclear plants newer than Daiichi units 1-3 had survived both the earthquake and tsunami intact.

The final statement was made by Tom Burke of E3G who, it later turned out, used to share an office with Malcolm Grimston at Imperial. Burke followed Bennett’s lead by characterising the pro-nuclear argument as nuclear or nothing. Despite Lynas having started out by explicitly stating that we need both nuclear and renewables. He followed this up by asserting that the majority of environmentalist are anti-nuclear and they can’t all be wrong. Which is the straightest example of argumentum ad populum I’ve heard in a while.
This brings us to the saddest spectacle of the evening in which Tom Burke shouted at Mark Lynas for having been mean to him in an LA Times article. During this display Burke also accused Lynas of not being a real environmentalist as he hadn’t ever worked for a real environmental group. Burke seemed surprised when this didn’t go over well with the audience.
He moved onto safer ground citing a £200 billion cleanup cost for Fukushima and linking nuclear power with nuclear weapons proliferation. Asserting that if a country has no civilian nuclear facilities it is very easy to tell if they are developing the bomb. Burke also made an argument that Nuclear couldn’t be built fast enough to meet our needs. He asserted that 50GW of wind had been built globally last year against 1GW of nuclear. He also cited the need to build 260 nuclear plants over the next 20 years just to replace the plants currently at the end of their service lives.

Which brings us to the Q&A session.

Things started off with a strident anti-nuclear activist who would clearly have rather been on the panel than in the audience. Despite protesting that she would be concise she went on and on about a study linking nuclear power-plants to childhood leukaemia. This is the study she was referencing. The authors themselves say that the link is unlikely to be caused by radiation.

Another person pointed out that renewables only get built because of the available subsidies.

A question was asked about whether Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) should be pursued.

Tom Burke replied that nuclear receives much greater subsidies than renewables. He was also of the opinion that energy generation is so important that governments should be subsidising methods they prefer.

Mark Lynas was of the opinion that no large scale CCS had yet been shown to work and that unlike nuclear waste CO2 has no half-life so it must be stored forever. That being said he was also of the opinion that if it could be shown to work it might still be a good idea in the short term. At this point Lynas asked Bennett if it was true that Friends of the Earth (FoE) supported research into Thorium reactors.

Bennett replied that this was true and that FoE supported research into a lot of technologies that are a long way off like Fusion. This makes it sound like FoE only suppport nuclear technologies if it believes they won’t be deployed soon enough to cause it ideological problems with it’s supporters. However I may be reading more into his reply than was actually there.
Bennett also supported CCS. He said that we were going to need it to deal with the very large amount of coal-fired power stations in China.

A question was asked about the CO2 impact of Uranium mining.

The venerable Mayer Hillman asked a question about the peak CO2 concentration in the atmosphere in a fully nuclear world.
A student asked about the impact of water usage by nuclear plants especially where water resources are becoming constrained.

Mark Lynas in response to Mayer Hillman conceded that nuclear was not enough to reach a safe level of CO2.

Another questioner made an interesting assertion as to the negative economic and social consequences of a centralised power system. I think his case was that this made nuclear bad since it is more centralised. In the short time he had he was not able to expand on this thought.

The last question came from a Sustainable Development student who asked about how we should get investment made into into both nuclear and renewables. Her point was that this is difficult since markets are not rational and both sides of the debate are demonising each other.

The final answer came from Bennett in response to Lynas. Bennett admitted that FoE was broadly in support of the shutting down of 7 nuclear reactors by the German government despite the large amounts of extra CO2 it would generate.

I honestly felt that the questions were far more interesting than most of the answers. The problem with debates is that they mostly aren’t conducive to a real investigation of the issues and can very easily descend into sound-bite tennis. There were some interesting points made on both sides, but I felt that Burke and Bennett had more tendency to resort to rhetorical tactics rather than attempt a proper explanation of the position. Which of course doesn’t mean that they are wrong it just means I found them less convincing.

A vote on the motion was taken before and after the debate.

Position Before After
For 128 165
Against 56 63
Undecided 68 15

Which looks to me like no-one who entered the room with a position changed their mind.