Deep Ambivalence re: Nuclear Energy and Clean Coal as Climate Change Responses

They buy time for conspicuous energy consumption; yet are untested and far off, may cause further environmental damage and consolidate global ecological overshoot

Earth Meanders by Dr. Glen Barry
October 22, 2007

These essays have been silent on proposals for a nuclear energy revival and clean coal carbon sequestration as climate change solutions. I remain deeply uncertain and even ambivalent regarding their desirability and ultimate effectiveness. Nuclear and clean coal energies are the logical next technological steps in the progression of human dominance of the Earth. Yet at best they will only delay energy shortages while contributing little to climate change mitigation.

Nuclear energy and clean coal may need to be pursued, but let us at least be honest regarding the full range of choices and their implications. Their pursuit may well keep the lights on for awhile longer. Yet key elements of both remain untested, it is doubtful they can be ramped up fast enough to levels required to mitigate climate change, and both carry risks of serious long-term environmental damage of their own.

What is missing in the promotion of industrial responses to climate change and other eco-crises is an honest assessment whether our efforts -- in a world that has already overshot global ecological carrying capacity -- are best placed in further global scale technological manipulation, or support for resurgent nature and a powering down of industrial society.

There are well known concerns with nuclear proliferation and waste disposal. Future generations for tens of thousands of years will have to look after our nuclear waste, while not making weapons from it, even as they face potential cataclysmic nuclear accidents. Uranium itself is becoming scarce, the full process from mining to waste burial does release appreciable greenhouse gases, building the number of nuclear plants needed would be unprecedented if not impossible, and nuclear plants require large amounts of water for cooling -- which climate change may make unavailable.

Commercial scaled sequestration of carbon underground from coal burning power plants remains untested both technologically and economically. There have been no large-scale demonstrations of the feasibility of burying carbon from coal on land, or that it will stay underground once buried. Building new clean coal plants and retrofitting existing ones would take decades, which we do not have to address climate change. One earthquake or leak could in the future release huge amounts of "sequestered" carbon at once with devastating impact. Coal based energy devastates land, mountains and water worldwide; which would continue.

The primary benefit of both new nuclear and clean coal energy is that they would allow for continued profligate and even wasteful energy use, putting off difficult changes in energy policy. Their embrace would allow energy conservation and efficiency measures, that some suggest would lead to a less fulfilling life for the energy rich, to be postponed. Energy shortages and ecological collapse would be put off a decade or two, allowing perhaps one more generation in over-developed countries to enjoy McMansions, hummers, plasma TVs and other benefits of energy misuse.

It is quite possible that embracing new nuclear and coal energy will put off the pathologies stalking the human race for awhile, but at the expense of distracting from real solutions, and further entrenching trends that threaten the biosphere and humanity. Assuming they work, they would buy time on climate change, yet over- population and consumption will continue apace. The lights will be kept on a bit longer as we lose the Amazon, go from 6.5 to 9 billion people, destroy vital water resources, and the entire world strives for a western consumptive lifestyle.

Perhaps nuclear energy and clean coal could be pursued as one component in a vast program to save humanity and our habitat. This would include programs to reduce human population; pursue energy alternatives, conservation and efficiency; preserve and restore ancient forests; and reduce conspicuous and inequitable consumption. Their energy could be used to tool a renewable energy infrastructure. But this is not what is proposed. Rather the key selling point is that both make it possible to continue consuming electricity excessively for longer.

Humanity has a fundamental choice to make whether we are going to primarily pursue technological, or nature based, remedies to climate change and other ecological crises. Will we seek to engineer a biosphere, or will we again embrace living within the Earth and biosphere's natural limits?

If we embrace natural responses; such as powering down our economy, preserving and restoring ecosystems, and reducing our population and consumption; we could still pull back and avoid ecological collapse resulting from exceeding the Earth's carrying capacity. We can also try to do so by taking the Earth into human control, though at greater risk and with grave uncertainties, for all of our remaining time.

Dr. Barry is founder and President of Ecological Internet; provider of the largest, most used environmental portals on the Internet including the Climate Ark at and http://www.EcoEarth.Info/ . Earth Meanders is a series of ecological essays that are written entirely in his personal capacity. This essay may be reprinted granted it is properly credited to Dr. Barry and with a link to Earth Meanders. Emailed responses are public record and will be posted on the web site unless otherwise requested.


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