Thursday, June 04, 2015

Barry Brook: Biodiversity As a Nuclear Asset

Australian Barry Brook, Chair of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania, has put together a letter with 75 other academics in his field to argue for more nuclear energy. The letter in turn points to a journal article co-authored by Brook called “Key Role for Nuclear Energy in Global Biodiversity Conservation,” published in Conservation Biology.

Here is part of the abstract:

We evaluated the land use, emissions, climate, and cost implications of 3 published but divergent storylines for future energy production, none of which was optimal for all environmental and economic indicators. Using multicriteria decision-making analysis, we ranked 7 major electricity-generation sources (coal, gas, nuclear, biomass, hydro, wind, and solar) based on costs and benefits and tested the sensitivity of the rankings to biases stemming from contrasting philosophical ideals. Irrespective of weightings, nuclear and wind energy had the highest benefit-to-cost ratio. Although the environmental movement has historically rejected the nuclear energy option, new-generation reactor technologies that fully recycle waste and incorporate passive safety systems might resolve their concerns and ought to be more widely understood.

Some aspects of the article – notably the measurement tools employed – are well above my head. But much of it is not only comprehensible, but loud and clear in its conclusions:

In 2010, nuclear energy was used to generate commercial electricity in 31 countries, provided 74% of total supply in France, and contributed 2,628 terawatt hours (TWh; IEA 2013). Based on life-cycle emissions intensities for nuclear (20 t CO2-e TWh−1) and coal(>1,000 t CO2-e TWh−1) power, this is an effective saving of at least 2.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually, as well as avoidance of a toxic brew of heavy metals, black carbon, sulfates, and numerous other aerosols (Kharecha & Hansen 2013).

Clear enough, yes? But this, I think, is the heart of it:

From a biodiversity-centric standpoint, conservation professionals also need to consider carefully the energy sources they will support in terms of how many species they are willing to lose. In other words, conservation professionals should be asking themselves what minimum criteria should be met for the choice of global energy supply in terms of biodiversity persistence (e.g., considering just how bad climate disruption will get and how much more land area will be cleared) and what is their maximum tolerance for failure to achieve those goals (Brook & Bradshaw 2012). Can we afford to play Russian roulette with biodiversity because of preconceived notions and ideals?

Brook recognizes that nuclear energy already has an appeal in place with little free land to spare – some European and Asian countries in particular.

For many countries—including most high energy-consuming nations in East Asia and Western Europe with little spare land and already high population densities—the options for massive expansion of renewable energy alternatives are heavily constrained (Trainer 2010; Hong et al. 2013a).

But the gist of the piece has more to do with using nuclear energy as a means of maintaining biodiversity:

From a biodiversity-centric standpoint, conservation professionals also need to consider carefully the energy sources they will support in terms of how many species they are willing to lose. In other words, conservation professionals should be asking themselves what minimum criteria should be met for the choice of global energy supply in terms of biodiversity persistence (e.g., considering just how bad climate disruption will get and how much more land area will be cleared) and what is their maximum tolerance for failure to achieve those goals (Brook & Bradshaw 2012).

And his conclusion?

Based on an objective and transparent analysis of our sustainable energy choices, we have come to the evidence-based conclusion that nuclear energy is a good option for biodiversity conservation (and society in general) and that other alternatives to fossil fuels should be subjected to the same cost–benefit analyses (in terms of biodiversity and climate outcomes, as well as sociopolitical imperatives) before accepting or dismissing them.

While Brook himself, as his Brave New Climate blog abundantly shows, is much in favor of nuclear energy – not a typical view of an Australian – he has assembled an impressive cohort to endorse his work.

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As interesting as Brook’s article is, the letter he has circulated promoting it and signed by 75 colleagues in conservation studies deserves attention in itself. He sees it as a way to get well more than 75 people to support his view:

"As well as educating the conservation biology community about the potential benefits of nuclear and the need to have a cost-benefit analysis of all energy sources, we wanted to provide an anchor point from which we could write the open letter and garner support from the community," says Brook says of the reasons behind writing the paper, "We felt there was strong support [for nuclear] in the scientific community but we needed something for people to catch on to."

That suggests a very healthy ego.

But the thing is, Brook clearly has delineated – and tested – another basis to support nuclear power as an energy source in a time of change. Beyond its emission-free qualities – which has certainly helped it gain traction – nuclear energy does have the capacity to deliver a lot of energy without stressing the environment in which it operates. Facilities already consider themselves stewards of the flora and fauna that shares their acreage – we used Florida’ Turkey Point for our picture, but it Is not unique – Brook has used is a systematic approach to show that just siting a nuclear plant can help fulfill the goals of conservation.

The study is dense and I don’t understand it entirely, but it’s genuinely fascinating and well worth engagement. Read the paper and see what you think.

2 comments:

Russ Finley said...

I'm a proponent of nuclear energy as well as the preservation of biodiversity, but had I peer reviewed this paper I would have noted that he lists batteries as a fuel. I would also have pointed out that NiMh is not used in electric cars as he states, although it is still used in most hybrids. The graphics are poor quality, etc. Those few quibbles spotted while skim reading it are enough to make me wonder what I'd find if I took a closer look.

While writing an article about Turkey Point ( http://www.energytrendsinsider.com/2015/03/03/turkey-point-power-station-and-its-ecosystem/ ) I came to realize that it uses both nuclear and fossil fuel energy sources, with most of its power coming from fossil fuels. It's a bit of a misnomer to refer to it as a nuclear power plant. Because of environmental protests in the 70's, the power plant was not allowed to use the bay for cooling and came up with the unique cooling canal design instead, which usurped a lot of wetlands and is presently causing salination problems. But those problems are the result of needing to cool steam used for turbines, and are not unique to nuclear. Turkey Point would still have that problem with or without nuclear as one of its energy sources. A solar thermal powerplant would also have the same problem. Florida is a warm place. Dumping waste heat can be problematic, but IMHO those canals are definitely preferable to a wind farm in the Everglades!

Russ Finley said...

Also, here is the Wikipedia definition for dispatchable generation: "Dispatchable generation refers to sources of electricity that can be dispatched at the request of power grid operators; that is, generating plants that can be turned on or off, or can adjust their power output on demand. So, I don't understand what appears to be a favorable ranking given to nuclear for this quality in his chart. Possibly a different definition of dispatchable.