Climate & Energy

Brit's Eye View: Going nuclear

British government embraces a nuclear-powered future

Ben Tuxworth, communications director at Forum for the Future, is the new author of Brit's Eye View, a monthly Gristmill column on sustainability in the U.K. and Europe. The column was previously written by Tuxworth's colleague Peter Madden. After much delay, the British government started the new year with an announcement on nuclear power generation. It seems they have finally succumbed to the prevailing industry logic, which says that we need big bits of power-generating kit to plug into the grid to provide base loading, and nuclear is the perfect low-carbon solution. And because investment in any other possible solution -- particularly energy-efficiency measures and renewable technologies -- has been so poor over the last 20 years, it is now the only answer to a coming crisis in energy provision. The crisis is with us because the existing fleet of stations in the U.K. is either already obsolete or coming up for decommissioning in the next few years. Paradoxically, this eases the question of where to build: most of the new plants will be built on existing sites. These sites are on the coast, raising interesting questions about the effect of sea-level change, but for now they're the obvious choice as, despite industry claims about improved safety, it will be very difficult to find new localities in which nuclear power plants are welcome. Presenting nuclear as the best option for the U.K. seems to require pretty healthy doses of both wishful thinking and faith in hope over experience. Bringing this new generation of power stations online in time to meet the gap in supply means they must be up and running in 10 years, very close to the theoretical minimum from decision to delivery. The only other station being built in Europe at present, in Finland, is two years into construction and already two years late, and $1 billion over budget. To speed things up, we have to wish away objectors and hobble the planning system, for which special legislation is already proposed. But the big debate at present is what the true cost of these installations will be. Who will pay for building, running, and more importantly decommissioning them, and management of the waste over the coming millennia? The British government is anxious to avoid any suggestion that the taxpayer will pick up the tab, despite the fact that no nuclear reactor in history has been built without state subsidy. Order-of-magnitude underestimations of costs -- some of which are simply unknown -- litter the history of the industry, and government bailouts have been the consistent consequence.

Concentrations v. emissions

Tackling the biggest source of climate confusion

Avoiding catastrophic global warming requires stabilizing carbon dioxide concentrations, not emissions. Studies find that many, if not most, people are confused about this, including highly educated graduate students. I have personally found even well informed people are confused on this point and its crucial implications. We need to cut emissions 50 to 80 percent below current levels just to stop concentrations from rising. And global temperatures will not be stabilized for decades after concentrations are stabilized. And of course, the ice sheets may not stop disintegrating for decades -- and if we dawdle too long, centuries -- after temperatures stabilize. That is why we must act now if we want to have any reasonable hope of averting catastrophe. One 2007 MIT study, "Understanding Public Complacency About Climate Change: Adults' mental models of climate change violate conservation of matter," concluded "Low public support for mitigation policies may be based more on misconceptions of climate dynamics than high discount rates or uncertainty about the risks of harmful climate change." Here is a great video clarifying the issue, which you can send to folks. It is narrated by my friend Andrew Jones: If you want to play the simulation itself, go here. They make use of the bathtub analogy: While atmospheric concentrations (the total stock of CO2 already in the air) might be thought of as the water level in the bathtub, emissions (the yearly new flow into the air) are the rate of water flowing into a bathtub.

Whither the alternative energy market?

Q&A with Eric Janszen on whether an alt-energy bubble is in the making

Eric Janszen Eric Janszen, the founder and president of, recently argued in Harper's Magazine that the alternative energy segment is a prime candidate for a massive asset bubble, potentially dwarfing both the dot-com and housing bubbles. I wrote about Janszen's prediction last week. This week, Janszen joins us for a question-and-answer follow-up.

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