From the Catskills to the Cotswolds

Guest posting by Robert Stone

Not too long ago, most environmentalists assumed that the world was rapidly running out of fossil fuels. This certain fact, we believed, would lead to a steady and steep rise in energy prices that in turn would encourage and facilitate the inevitable transition towards a renewable energy future. We were wrong.

Human ingenuity in the field of fossil fuel extraction has turned this assumption on its head. Fracking has enabled us to find and extract unfathomable amounts of cheap natural gas from right beneath our feet.

This technology, and its potential to alter our rural environment and way of life, has caused my home in the Catskill region of upstate New York to become a hub of anti-fracking activism. Fracktivists we call them. And they have come to my former home, Britain.

From the Catskills to the Cotswolds, people are up in arms about their pristine countryside being turned into an industrial landscape: meadows littered with drilling rigs; country lanes clogged with belching lorries carrying gas and waste water; and fresh water aquifers possibly threatened with contamination.

Moreover, we see the beginnings of the next great fossil fuel addiction as we replace the dreaded coal plants of yore with the gas turbines of today. Gas produces 50% less CO2 and no particulate pollution, to be sure, but is still a fossil fuel that will continue to alter the chemistry of the Earth’s atmosphere in ways that are increasingly incompatible with human civilization. The recent report from the UN’s expert panel, the IPCC, warns that humanity is heading for climate disaster and is 95-100% certain that burning fossil fuels is the cause.

Most environmentalists have convinced themselves that climate disaster can be avoided by calling for a transition to an all-renewable energy future. While wind and solar will undoubtedly play an increasing role in our energy mix, what’s largely ignored is just how mind-bogglingly gargantuan our appetite for energy actually is, and just how fast it is growing. Right now we’re adding the energy equivalent of another Brazil to the planet every year!

Even under the most optimistic scenarios, this is orders of magnitude beyond the ability of wind and solar to meet. Renewables are perfectly good sources of energy, but they remain limited by intermittency, scalability, meager options for high capacity energy storage and the pesky requirement of a backup, carbon-based energy infrastructure to stabilize the power grid. Environmentalists cannot wish away the problems associated with renewable energy: energy denialism can be just as irresponsible as climate denialism.

Many people are also up in arms against seeing vast areas of beloved farmland covered with wind turbines, power lines and access roads. This too is a pernicious form of rural industrialization, resulting in protests even in Germany where new transmission lines are being blocked.

Many environmentalists therefore find themselves in the uncomfortable position of being against the production of energy itself, unless it miraculously appears from some benign source far, far away or comes entirely from the solar panel we might put on our roof, if we can afford one. Everything else is abhorred. But to remain credible, we can’t just say “no” to everything: coal, gas, wind and nuclear.

Did I just say nuclear? Yes, I did. Over the last decade, I’ve become increasingly persuaded that advanced nuclear power is the best option to achieving many of the key goals of environmentalism. The drawbacks of nuclear power with respect to safety, cost, waste and proliferation have been wildly exaggerated by activist opponents of this technology who’ve transposed their legitimate opposition to nuclear weapons to an equally impassioned opposition to nuclear energy in any form, now and forever.

There are still issues to be worked out in terms of making nuclear power cost competitive, but I believe that passively safe, advanced modular reactor designs with a standardized, mass production of components, can address this problem. Indeed, it already is in places like China and India where advanced reactors are currently being developed and brought on line.

Britain, too, is witnessing something of a nuclear renaissance, with the announcement of a new reactor at Hinkley Point in Somerset. I would prefer to see Britain leap ahead with the developing world and build an advanced PRISM reactor. Nevetheless, Hinkley Point still means Britain can enjoy cleaner air, fewer CO2 emissions and hopefully less fracking.

The world is crying out for a safe, sustainable, affordable, clean source of energy that’s capable of meeting the needs of an energy hungry world. No energy source is perfect at meeting all of these requirements. But given the alternatives, nuclear power represents the best option with respect to safety, environmental impact and implementation.

Unless we want to revert to a pre-industrial way of life, these are the real choices we face. Nuclear, in my view, is no longer a choice; it’s a necessity.

Robert Stone is an Academy Award-nominated documentary film director. His latest film, PANDORA’S PROMISE, explores the environmental case for nuclear energy.

© Mark Lynas
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