It’s time for environmentalists to give nuclear a fair go

Energy supply including nuclear is the best way to fight climate change and conserve wildlife and ecosystems. James Marvin Phelps/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Should nuclear energy be part of Australia’s (and many other countries') future energy mix? We think so, particularly as part of a solution to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prevent dangerous climate change.

Is the future of biodiversity conservation nuclear? Corey Bradshaw and Barry Brook, CC BY-NC

But there are other reasons for supporting nuclear technology. In a paper recently published in Conservation Biology, we show that an energy mix including nuclear power has lowest impact on wildlife and ecosystems — which is what we need given the dire state of the world’s biodiversity.

In response, we have gathered signatures of 66 leading conservation scientists from 14 countries in an open letter asking that the environmental community:

weigh up the pros and cons of different energy sources using objective evidence and pragmatic trade-offs, rather than simply relying on idealistic perceptions of what is ‘green’.

Energy demand is rising

Modern society is a ceaseless consumer of energy, and growing demand won’t stop any time soon, even under the most optimistic energy-efficiency scenario.

Although it goes without saying that we must continue to improve energy efficiency in the developed world, the momentum of population growth and rising living standards, particularly in the developing world, means we will continue to need more energy for decades to come. No amount of wishful thinking for reduced demand will change that.

But which are the best forms of energy to supply the world, and not add to the biodiversity crisis?

Assessing our energy options

In short, the argument goes like this.

To avoid the worst ravages of climate change, we have to decarbonise fully (eliminate net carbon emissions from) the global electricity sector. Wildlife and ecosystems are threatened by this climate disruption, largely caused by fossil-fuel derived emissions.

But they are also imperilled by land transformation (i.e., habitat loss) caused in part by other energy sources, such as flooded areas (usually forests) for hydro-electricity and all the associated road development this entails, agricultural areas needed for biofuels, and large spaces needed for wind and solar farms.

Energy density of different fuels. This infographic shows the amount of energy embodied in uranium, coal, natural gas and a chemical battery, scaled to provide enough energy for a lifetime of use in the developed world. Shown are the amount of each source needed to provide same amount of energy, equivalent to 220 kWh of energy per day for 80 years. Barry Brook and Corey Bradshaw

In the paper, we evaluated land use, emissions, climate and cost implications of three different energy scenarios:

  • a “business as usual” future dominated by fossil fuels

  • a high renewable-energy mix excluding nuclear promoted by Greenpeace

  • an energy mix with a large nuclear contribution (50% of energy mix) plus a balance of renewable and fossil-fuel sources with carbon-capture-and-storage.

We then ranked seven major energy types: coal, gas, nuclear, biomass, hydro, wind, and solar based on economic and safety costs, and environmental benefits. We also tested the sensitivity of these rankings to bias stemming from philosophical ideals.

For instance, if you were most concerned about pursuing low carbon emissions, you might weight that criterion twice as heavily in the analysis as the lowest-cost option.

When compared objectively with alternatives, nuclear power performs as well or better that other options in terms of safety, cost, scaleability, reliability, land transformation and emissions. And overall, the mix including a substantial role for nuclear performed better than the other scenarios.

Although our analysis was based on existing nuclear designs, we were most excited about the advantages offered by next-generation nuclear power now under construction in Russia and China.

If deployed widely, this technology could provide emissions-free electricity, by recycling a highly-concentrated energy source in a way that consumes waste and minimises impacts to biodiversity compared to other energy sources.

A sustainable nuclear fuel cycle that ‘eats’ nuclear waste to produce abundant zero-carbon electricity and no long-lived byproducts. Barry Brook and Corey Bradshaw

0% fossil fuels, not 100% renewables

Ultimately, there is no perfect energy source. Conservation professionals and environmental advocates need to take an evidence-based approach to consider carefully the combined effects of energy mixes on biodiversity conservation.

Much as leading climate scientists recently advocated the development of safe, next-generation nuclear energy systems to combat global climate change, we argue that only by leaving our energy options open can we maximise our chance of conserving biodiversity and natural habitats during this century and beyond.

For example, the use of nuclear energy for electricity generation is prohibited federally within Australia under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (see section 140A). This needs to change if we are serious about maximising our changes of displacing fossil fuels.

There is strong evidence for supporting advanced nuclear power systems with complete fuel recycling as part of a portfolio of sustainable energy technologies, that also includes appropriate use of renewables, energy storage and energy efficiency.

We must accept that trade-offs and compromises are inevitable and require advocating energy mixes that minimise net environmental damage.

A key message is that the ideal mix of nuclear and renewables will be regionally dependent – being modified by, for example, available land area and renewable potential – and should be compared objectively without prejudice or preconceived notions. The environmentalist mantra on energy needs shift from “100% renewables” to “0% fossil fuels”. That should be the primary goal.

It is time that conservationists make their voices heard in this policy arena.


Editor’s note: Barry will be answering questions between 2 and 3pm AEDT on Tuesday December 16. Ask your questions about nuclear power and its role in conservation in the comments below.