Saturday, August 19, 2006

I am confused

I have always been against nuclear power. Although it may be a safe and clean source of energy 99.9% of the time, incidents like Chernobyl and Three-Mile Island give a terrifying glimpse of nuclear energy's potential to harm human life. Also, there is the very serious problem of nuclear waste, much of which will remain toxic to human life for at least 100,000 years. Atomic energy may be relatively clean, but it seems a very high price to pay for zero carbon emissions.

Like most people, I prefer the idea of a future in which our power comes from a mix of energy conservation and sustainable sources of electricity, including wind turbines, tidal power and solar energy. However, the grandfather of the Gaia movement, James Lovelock, believes that unless we build more nuclear power stations, we're buggered.

When I first read about Lovelock's change of heart in a newspaper article, I was appalled. However, now that I have read his latest book The Revenge of Gaia, I feel increasingly convinced by the power of his argument. In short, Lovelock argues that climate change has already begun and there is nothing we can do to stop it. The world will become a hotter, more hostile environment, sea levels will rise and food supplies will dwindle. In the face of these changes, Lovelock argues that the best that we can hope for is an 'organised retreat' during the course of the 21st century. Instead of descending into a state of anarchy as essential supplies diminish, we have an opportunity to try and anticipate the problems ahead and prepare. By managing population growth, food production and our infrastructure, we can mitigate the worst effects of climate change.

The key to survival, in Lovelock's view, is sustainability and part of that equation is nuclear power. Lovelock believes that alternative energy sources will never generate enough megawatts to replace today's carbon emitting power stations, so we must accept that out of all the energy sources available, nuclear is the best option. It is reliable, clean and, most important of all, provides us with a source of energy that is not dependent on fluctuations on the stock market. In Lovelock's view, nuclear fission power isn't the answer, but it is a temporary solution until the safe alternative of nuclear fusion power is ready.

I feel confused because although I am strongly opposed to nuclear energy, Lovelock's argments are very persuasive. What is the greatest threat to our future? A miniscule chance of radiation leak at a power station, or being dependent on other countries for our power? We have already seen how oil dependence can affect American and British foreign policy.

Ideally, I would like to see every home and business become responsible for their own power supply through a combination of wind and solar power complemented by energy saving measures. However, it is unlikely that all of our energy demands could be met this way and if I had to choose between Russian gas, Iranian oil and domestic nuclear power, I think that I would feel marginally more secure with the latter.

Our government is now talking about building a new generation of nuclear power stations. I only hope that they see this as a last resort and continue to pursue renewable sources of energy.


James Aach said...

You might find this helpful if you want to get a better understanding of the positives and negatives of nuclear power (plenty of both). Hopefully, it's entertaining too.

Steerforth said...

Thanks for your suggestion, but with two children, a full-time job and a pile of unread books that has reached the ceiling, I'm not sure if I'll have time to read your 38-chapter novel.

If you can suggest any other source of information that I can digest quickly, I'd be grateful.