Only with nuclear is there time to feed the world
Forty years ago this year, Band Aid released a single that in its first week became the fastest selling track in all time in the United Kingdom.
Co-written by Bob Geldof, Do They Know it’s Christmas went on to sell more than three million copies, and led to the massive Live Aid concerts and newfound determination to banish famine from the face of the planet. But four decades on, not only does starvation continue to stalk masses in the horn of Africa, global warming promises famine on an unprecedented scale.
The failure to vanquish hunger, when it was technically achievable, was a global disgrace. But worse, it has blunted warnings of that most ghastly consequence of global warming; the western world has become inured to the spectre of starvation. With the release by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of its fifth assessment report since its formation 26 years ago, comes its most dire description yet of impending famine. Sadly, rather than result in the sea change needed, most in the developed world will imagine, if they imagine at all, that this is about countries already prone to famine. But even in Aotearoa, as things stand, it will mean that those who currently go to school hungry will have a great deal more company, as global shortages hike food prices, pushing more and more families into poverty.
Child poverty, according to polling conducted in February, is the forth most important issue for undecided voters. Predictably, it was rated more important by Labour and Green party supporters (second most important issue), but still scraped into the top five issues of National Party supporters—the top concern for 17% of that party’s supporters. The fine print of the One News Colmar Brunton poll states that its list of issues ‘was not intended to be an exhaustive list of election issues.’ Global warming got not a mention, yet the most recent poll of New Zealanders on that subject had more than 60% saying the government should be doing more on climate change. It is a sad indictment of the mainstream media that One News poll included the national flag, which was voted least important of 11 electoral issues, whilst global warming was considered insufficiently newsworthy to rate inclusion. The flippancy is further emphasised by the fact that 10th-ranked election issue was ‘inequality’—the first concern of a caring 14% of respondents, as opposed to the 2% for whom the first issue was the flag.
That One News doesn’t consider global warming an election issue also reflects poorly on political parties. Even the Green Party lacks the courage to campaign on global warming. The party is happy to oppose offshore drilling, by stressing the threat of oil spills. But rather than be dictated to by the results of focus groups, the party must muster the courage to talk about the guaranteed outcome of drilling: the ruinous additional warming that is the unavoidable consequence of burning fossil fuels.
While the Green Party’s diffidence over climate action partly reflects its desire to not scare the horses, it also stems from its superficial understanding of the gargantuan task of averting irreversible global warming, which calls for almost completely replacing the fossil fuel energy infrastructure:
That system now has an annual throughput of more than 7 billion metric tons of hard coal and lignite, about 4 billion metric tons of crude oil, and more than 3 trillion cubic meters of natural gas. This adds up to 14 trillion watts of power. And its infrastructure—coal mines, oil and gas fields, refineries, pipelines, trains, trucks, tankers, filling stations, power plants, transformers, transmission and distribution lines, and hundreds of millions of gasoline, kerosene, diesel, and fuel oil engines—constitutes the costliest and most extensive set of installations, networks, and machines that the world has ever built, one that has taken generations and tens of trillions of dollars to put in place.
By hitching its wagon to the renewable energy star, the Green Party is happy to claim the moral high ground, but it is dangerously deluded. By denying nuclear power its natural role in reigning in fossil fuel use, the party, and likewise the likes of anti-nuclear-power Greenpeace, are the unwitting enemy-of-my-enemy best friends of the fossil-fuel oligarchy. However, the Green Party should not be embracing nuclear power because it is (with apologies to Winston Churchill) the worst form of power except all the others that have been tried, but because it is the best, cleanest and only fit-for-service at-scale alternative.
Much of the resistance to nuclear power stems from a fundamental misapprehension about radiation. Fortunately for life on this planet, low levels of radiation are both natural and beneficial, including to humans. If that were not the case, people living in areas that have relatively high natural background levels of radiation would present with more cases of cancer. Instead, the reverse is true; a lower incidence of cancer is experienced, except in the few areas where ambient radiation levels are exceptionally high. Although research on the subject is sparse, it is entirely possible that the health benefits of living with higher-than-average radiation levels are such that, in addition to affordable electricity, nuclear power stations should be reticulating mildly radioactive hot water for domestic heating and bathing. But while such a proposition will, to most, sound preposterous, the health benefits of radiotherapy are beyond reproach. This, despite the fact that surrounding tissue, which is significantly irradiated, quickly recovers. Fortunately for many current cancer sufferers, a hundred years of its use has conclusively proven radiotherapy’s efficacy and safety, as has the use of x-ray imaging.
Had the laws of physics been different and allowed the wholesale burning of fossil fuels for a hundred additional years before greenhouse gas levels led to dangerous global warming, the irrational fear of nuclear power might safely have harmlessly run its course, as did the not inconsiderable fear of electricity a century ago. Instead, a mere 150 years since the industrial revolution began in earnest, coal-fired, in England, warming there is bringing repeated flooding, leaving homes filled with silt. Thanks to having led the fossil-fueled revolution, the United Kingdom is exceptionally wealthy, unlike the Solomon Islands, which will struggle to rebuild homes and infrastructure in the aftermath of the weekend’s unprecedented flooding.
New Zealanders are well accustomed to punching above their weight. David Lange’s accidental anti-nuclear-ship visit policy instantly appealed to New Zealanders’ preparedness to take a poke at a more powerful opponent, although a residual British sense of superiority probably contributed. But now, with the consequences of the United States’ stalled nuclear power programme, along with those of Japan and Germany, plainly hurting the low-lying and the drought-prone, its own farmers in particular in respect to the latter, Aotearoa has an unparalleled opportunity to make the international community sit up and take notice: by cancelling a couple of its roads-of-national-significance projects to the tune of US$3.3 billion, and spending the savings on a General Electric AP-1000 generation-three-plus nuclear power plant with passive nuclear safety features—certainly the exchange rate has never been better.
An AP-1000 would bring Aotearoa within a bucketful of smart meters of boasting 100% carbon-free electricity, and would eclipse the 90%-by-2025 target of Prime Minister Clark in 2007, for which neither she nor any party leader since has been able to produce an even halfway credible plan for achieving. Meantime, to replace that AP-1000 with residential rooftop photovoltaic panels would more than three times as expensive—hardly a convincing fit with the Green Party’s professed concern for child poverty; poor children would be going to bed hungry and in the dark.
With the Green Party righteously and determinedly pro-renewable and anti-nuclear, the way is clear for Labour to claim the high ground on the moral issue of the millennium. National is no position to initiate a move to nuclear—the party lacks the motivation to do anything politically contentious in pursuit of decisive climate action. Meantime, playing it safe is not going to get Labour back in the limelight locally, much less provide its leader the opportunity to stride the world stage. And while Greens will wish to cry ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ from the sidelines, circumspection would behove the party: If concentrated solar power can’t lay a glove on nuclear, then photovoltaic panels fall short by a mammoth margin. To match the AP-1000’s output would cost a eye-watering $12 billion, plus impose cripplingly expensive demands on the grid. Labour can also point to the cruel joke of German photovoltaic whereby the wealthy, who can afford to have panels installed, are subsidised by those who can’t afford them. Germany now has the most expensive electricity in Europe, and is emitting more carbon dioxide.
Many will remember the aspersions cast against Bob Geldof and the efficacy of his relief work, but few will aware of the subsequent apology by the British Broadcasting Corporation. Even fewer, however, will be aware of Geldof’s support for nuclear power:
We may mess around with wind and waves and other renewable energy sources, trying to make them sustainable, but they’re not. They’re Mickey Mouse … but to really help the planet, we have to go nuclear, fast.
Geldof is in extraordinarily good company—support for nuclear power is the acid test as to whether a person or political party has studied sustainable energy, or simply adopted it as a cause.
Disclosure Since the day the Labour Party leadership election was announced, 22 August 2013, the writer has been a card-carrying member of that party.