In an interview with the Guardian last week Al Gore talked about the climate negotiations in Copenhagen this year, the European carbon market, climate change deniers, smart grids and nuclear energy.
The most surprising comment from Gore was about nuclear energy and its role in fighting climate change. According to Gore nuclear energy is not the answer to our problems because it’s dirty, too expensive, unsafe and that it poses a threat to world peace.
“I’m not a reflexive opponent of nuclear. I used to be enthusiastic about it, but I’m now sceptical about it. There’s a few reasons. Let’s assume for the moment that we will solve the problem of long-term storage of radioactive waste. Let’s assume also that we’ll figure out how to standardise their design as [each plant] is currently unique and that enhances the risk of operator accidents. Let’s assume we can solve the terrorism threat to nuclear reactors. That still leaves a couple of very difficult problems.
First and foremost, economics. The nuclear industry cannot give any reliable cost estimate for how much it will take to build a nuclear plant. When a utility is confronted with the absence of any advances for how much the construction cost is going to be, then that’s a problem. Because the economics of nuclear only work at scale. You’ve got to have a 1,000 megawatt plant for it to be efficient and competitive. In the current environment, if you run a large utility that sells electricity you’ve got a certain amount of money to allocate in your budget. If you’re looking at the trends towards more conservation and the rapid introduction of renewables, it’s hard for you to project what your demand is going to be with as much precision as when the world was more predictable. As a result, you are less inclined to take all of your money and place one big bet on something that matures 12-15 years from now at an uncertain cost. That what’s called a “lumpy investment” and they want smaller increments that give them smaller flexibility. In the US, there hasn’t been a new order for a new reactor in 36 years.
Yes, there is [more appetite for nuclear power now]. And because of the carbon crisis there will be more nuclear plants built and some of those being retired will be replaced by others. I think it will play a somewhat larger role, but it will not be the main option chosen.
Whatever countries such as the US and the UK do, it will have a demonstration effect for the rest of the world. As the world comes to grips with how to solve the climate crisis, we in the US and the UK have a leadership role. If we told the rest of the world that nuclear is the answer [they would follow]. For the eight years that I spent in the White House every nuclear weapons proliferation problem we dealt with was connected to a reactor programme. People have said for years that there are now completely different [nuclear] technologies. OK, but if you have a team of scientists that can build a reactor, and you’re a dictator, you can make them work at night to build a nuclear weapon. That’s what’s happened in North Korea and Iran. And in Libya before they gave it up. So the idea of, say, Chad, Burma, and Sudan having lots of nuclear reactors is insane and it’s not going to happen.”
And Greenpeace was of course happy by Gore’s comment. Martin Lloyd, from the Greenpeace blog Making Waves, said that:
“It’s always nice when people agree with you. We’ve maintained that nuclear power is a dangerous distraction to the real solutions to the climate crisis for a long time now. It’s dirty, it’s unsafe, it’s a threat to world peace and it is terribly, terribly expensive.”
“Now, Al Gore, who’s sometimes been on the other side of this argument has come round to our position. Because, as he notes, even if you assume problems with safety and waste can be overcome, it just doesn’t make sense economically.”
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