Nuclear power or global warming
May 26, 2004 4:08 PM   Subscribe

James Lovelock, the creator of the Gaia theory, says that only a massive expansion of nuclear power as the world's main energy source can alleviate the effects of global warming. [Via WorldChanging.]
posted by homunculus (27 comments total)
Which source; fission or fusion? Fusion you can use salt water for fuel and containing the radioactivity, iirc.
posted by thomcatspike at 4:19 PM on May 26, 2004

"By any means necessary," is the message I took from that article.
posted by darukaru at 4:23 PM on May 26, 2004

I do not fear expanded nuclear power.

I do indeed fear expanded nuclear power under a corporatist economic system.
posted by RavinDave at 4:29 PM on May 26, 2004

When handles carefully, and when we develop the means to safely dispose of its waste, then it will be golden.
posted by linux at 4:32 PM on May 26, 2004

I have to agree with him, especially this paragraph:

Opposition to nuclear energy is based on irrational fear fed by Hollywood-style fiction, the Green lobbies and the media. These fears are unjustified, and nuclear energy from its start in 1952 has proved to be the safest of all energy sources. We must stop fretting over the minute statistical risks of cancer from chemicals or radiation. Nearly one third of us will die of cancer anyway, mainly because we breathe air laden with that all pervasive carcinogen, oxygen. If we fail to concentrate our minds on the real danger, which is global warming, we may die even sooner, as did more than 20,000 unfortunates from overheating in Europe last summer.

Here's hoping for a more open-minded look at the situation.
posted by Zonker at 4:48 PM on May 26, 2004

At least he isn't proposing fusing the tectonic plates with nuclear explosions. After all, that would be unrealistic.
posted by ilsa at 4:57 PM on May 26, 2004

I've just been turned on to Hot Dry Rock (HDR) power, which was just very successfully tested in France. Clean as a whistle, very safe, and very simple.
posted by badstone at 4:57 PM on May 26, 2004

We've seen the spartan efficiency and alacrity with which the current administration quietly rolled back significant environmental laws to placate their corporatist paymasters. I want a wee bit of assurance that this won't happen in an expanded nuclear industry. ("Three redundancies? Hell, we only need two, if that!")

I don't see how such assurances are possible.
posted by RavinDave at 5:05 PM on May 26, 2004

A Book For All Seasons
posted by homunculus at 5:13 PM on May 26, 2004

If this guy is right, Gaia is a nuclear reactor.
posted by homunculus at 5:27 PM on May 26, 2004

Frankly, corporate nuclear power, supervised by an open and uncorrupted agency is vastly preferable to the old way of secrecy stemming from the military roots of nuclear power.

Finland, Bucking Energy Trends, Calls For More Nuclear Power.
posted by lazy-ville at 5:29 PM on May 26, 2004

Which source; fission or fusion?

Presumably the one that actually generates electricity on a commercial scale.
posted by inpHilltr8r at 6:20 PM on May 26, 2004

I think we need to take an honest look at some other technologies before we look at nuclear again. Yes, we should be pouring as much dough as possible into R&D for nuclear fusion (it's the holy grail, IMO). Nuclear fission on the other hand really doesn't seem safe or effective for the interim. Solar, wind, and bio-diesel seem to be the best candidates for power as we move off fossil fuels and await the proliferation of quality nuclear fusion. Just my .02
posted by velacroix at 7:06 PM on May 26, 2004

Recent improvements in reactor design make for safe and foolproof operation, but there is little interest in building new plants. New construction, if it occurs, will most likely be in developing countries. We may find that 20-30 years down the line there will be a technology transfer in reverse, eg. coming to North America from Africa.

I highly recommend this lecture from MIT, The Politically Correct Nuclear Reactor. It details the technical and political hurtles facing future development in nuclear energy. The speaker talks in depth about pebble bed reactors.
posted by FissionChips at 8:18 PM on May 26, 2004

homunculus - that excerpt is one of my favorite pieces of writing.

Lovelock's genius is yet underappreciated, I believe. I can gauge how long it's been since I first read one of his books by looking at it on my shelf :

"Ages of Gaia" - the book is identified by writing in magic marker on a mangled book spine because my dog, then a puppy, got a hold of it and - as puppies tend to with favorite objects belonging to their masters - gnawed the cover straight off.

The text was, fortunately, intact.

I found the dog - or he found me - shortly before I met the woman who is now my wife. So, that was about ten years ago.

Lovelock, however, has been advocating nuclear power as an emergency measure for about two decades now - I look at the view with a great deal of tolerance because, although I know that there are other perhaps more benign routes to the same goal, Lovelock's underlying point is deadly serious and quite accurate (in my opinion) :

We cannot take the current stability of the Gaian system for granted. It has recently been discovered (hence the new Hollywood disaster film, "The Day After") that the earth's climate system can shift remarkably quickly into new steady states. But, the disaster depicted by "The Day After" pales in comparison to the almost inconceivable severity of the "Snowball Earth" cataclysms, at least one of which is believed to have precipitated one of the five greatest species extinction events known of in the history of life on Earth :

"According to this still-controversial theory, between 750 million and 550 million years ago our planet repeatedly got so cold that the oceans froze from the poles all the way to the equator, then thawed in a sudden greenhouse effect.

The periods of deep freeze lasted about 10 million years, killing most of the primitive organisms then alive, according to Paul Hoffman, a professor of geology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

During the subsequent warm spells, the hardy survivors gave birth to a stupendous variety of complex life forms, Hoffman said in an interview and in an article published in Science.

"A snowball Earth followed by extreme greenhouse conditions" would help explain the evolution of new, complex species -- "a problem that has bedeviled biologists since before Charles Darwin," he said.

Here is what Hoffman and fellow geologists at Harvard and the University of Maryland think happened: "

[ Google - "Snowball Earth"

Lovelock's point - as one who loves both the natural world and also human beings very deeply, I sense - is that we humans are only vaguely aware, at best, of the forces we are playing with here. We cannot overlook our potential ability to unleash - on the Earth - either uncontrolled heating or uncontrolled cooling. Either would prove catastrophic to most life currently extant.

One group most appreciative of Lovelock's insights are scientists working for NASA. Lovelock formed his "Gaia" theory (together with the brilliant biologist Lynn Margulis) as a result of his work for NASA, to develop methods by which the first Mars expedition might discover life there.

"I got your answer!" - Lovelock told them. "Mars is almost totally dead!"

His reasoning - as usual - was impeccable. Life interacts with it's environment, and this results in the production of gasses which would only exist in negligible concentrations otherwise.

Lovelock simply looked to the chemical (spectroscopic) analysis of the Martian atmosphere. It was almost totally inert. By comparison, the Earth's atmosphere is highly reactive, filled with oxygen.
posted by troutfishing at 8:47 PM on May 26, 2004

Opposition to nuclear energy is based on irrational fear fed by Hollywood-style fiction, the Green lobbies and the media.

You mean it isn't based on Chernobyl?
posted by Termite at 9:04 PM on May 26, 2004

Opposition to nuclear energy is based on irrational fear fed by Hollywood-style fiction, the Green lobbies and the media.

Don't forget the decade or so of wonderful propaganda from the U.S. Department of Defense et al.

Power from nuclear fission is not cheap though. Using it to replace any significant part of our usage of fossil fuels would be enourmously expensive in up-front financial and political costs, and therefore will not happen any time soon.

This nuclear FAQ is quite informative on the subject, although some of you may wish to note that it comes from someone who isn't convinced that global warming is happening, and thinks it will be good for you if it is.
posted by sfenders at 9:31 PM on May 26, 2004

Oops. Last link was broken.
posted by sfenders at 9:34 PM on May 26, 2004

Opposition to nuclear energy is based on irrational fear fed by Hollywood-style fiction

That and the fact that (in the UK anyway) it has proved to be massively more expensive than was predicted and continually has to be propped up by subsidy after subsidy to stop it collapsing and taking out 27% of British electrical generation. And yes, while renewable energy is currently subsidised the scale is nothing like that which nuclear has had.
posted by biffa at 9:40 AM on May 27, 2004

badstone: Hot Dry Rock is an interesting technology, but I'm pretty sure the actual number of workable sites are pretty low, and that link makes some dubious assumptions in the economics section. E.g., 90% plant availability seems very unrealistic and capital costs aren't calculated simply by adding up how much things cost to build. You have to include the cost of the capital itself, i.e. how much it costs to borrow the money, and this is likely to be pretty high for an unproven technology.
posted by biffa at 9:45 AM on May 27, 2004

Also - I'd say that I think the currently heavy subsidies to the nuclear power industry ( both in the US, Great Britain, and most everywhere I would assume ) should be phased down and those funds rechanneled to alternative energy sources, energy efficiency technologies, and fusion research.
posted by troutfishing at 10:03 AM on May 27, 2004

Hot Dry Rock (HDR) power
When looking for a cost savings, this is similar way people are using to heat/cool their homes, .
posted by thomcatspike at 11:47 AM on May 28, 2004

You mean it isn't based on Chernobyl?
Three Mile Island which preceded it.
posted by thomcatspike at 11:49 AM on May 28, 2004

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