TCS Daily


Gaia Goes Nuclear

By Peter Nolan & Donal Fitzgibbon - February 20, 2006 12:00 AM

The British biologist James Lovelock is one the most revered gurus of the environmentalist movement. Nevertheless, he caused uproar when he spoke out last year to encourage greens to adopt nuclear energy as the most practical option for powering our societies without adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. In his new book, The Revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth Is Fighting Back - and How We Can Still Save Humanity, he lays out his argument for nuclear power in more detail, as well as providing a biting insider's critique of the Green movement he has done so much to inspire, arguing "they must drop their wrong-headed objection to nuclear energy".

While working as a consultant biologist for NASA, Lovelock put forward the Gaia hypothesis, named after the Greek goddess of the earth, suggesting that we might better understand any planet, including the Earth as a complex interdependent single organism -- atmosphere, rocks, microbes, plants and animals -- which is self-regulating, creating conditions necessary for its, including our, continued survival.

Lovelock argues that Gaia is in mortal danger because humankind has, in the last few decades, "ceased to be just another animal and begun the demolition of the earth" through the use of fossil fuels. He takes the grimmest possible view of global warming. He warns that if we continue business as usual, civilization will suffer catastrophic collapse. "Humans are tough enough for breeding pairs to survive", he says, but only a few in isolation in remote areas.

Identifying himself as a "deep ecologist", Lovelock points to the root of our problems with the environment being man, in the shape of the exponential growth in population. With notable misanthropy, he questions the morality of those individuals who wish to extend human lifespan "beyond the logical limit of one hundred years" and invokes visions of humanity undergoing a well-deserved mass slaughter -- "Gaia will do the culling and eliminate those that break her rules".

Lovelock's outlook seems one of a pessimistic reactionary; reform he writes, is all too often "organized vandalism in the name of ideology". He bemoans that the changing English landscape means that "[t]he country I loved had all been taken away", with the rapid spread of wind farms now threatening to complete the process, even in his own rural idyll in Devon, England.

He writes of the need to develop the "right mix of energy sources", a portfolio that includes fossil fuels and renewable energy. However time is of the essence: Lovelock believes the only hope is to use the proven existing technology of nuclear fission as a short-term measure until other non-fossil fuel sources of energy are viable. As yet, besides blighting the countryside, wind power depends on the weather and cannot match the timing of demand for electricity. Biomass, crops grown for energy, needs farmland that Lovelock claims is already overstretched growing food. Even without these problems, renewable energy still costs users in the UK, the most liberalized power market in Europe, about three times as much as conventional sources.

Lovelock cites data that radiation from the Chernobyl reactor accident in Ukraine in 1986 killed, according to the latest World Health Organization survey, 75 people, almost all either operating the plant at the time or rescue workers at the scene. The zone around the plant, evacuated 20 years ago, has now become a thriving nature reserve. Similarly for the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island, the number of deaths resulting seems to have been zero. A breach in a dam could, by contrast, easily kill tens of thousands downstream, or perhaps half a million in the case of the giant Three Gorges project in central China. Lovelock points to research from the Paul Scherrer Institute, a Swiss government research laboratory, showing that nuclear power has been responsible for a tiny fraction of the fatalities, a fortieth, of renewable hydroelectric power.

Lovelock is highly critical of "cosmic-scale exaggeration" and "distortions of the truth about the health risks of nuclear energy", which he holds responsible environmental activists and a credulous media too ready to accept their bona fides.

Public attitudes, Lovelock writes, were also swayed by the association of atomic energy with the destruction threatened during the Cold War by nuclear weapons, mobilized by a post-Vietnam culture of protest and fashionable anti-Americanism.

The objection that global stocks of uranium will quickly become exhausted is dismissed; Lovelock points to India's plan to power a new generation of nuclear reactors with domestic reserves of Thorium instead. Furthermore, he suggests that granite may be economically processed for nuclear fuel.

Lovelock is critical of environmentalism more generally, referring to it as a movement of "affluent radicals in the first world" and points out ill-conceived solutions such as the banning of the pesticide DDT, which condemned millions in poor tropical countries to fatal mosquito-borne malaria.

The publication of this polemic is well-timed, with most of Europe now scrambling to cope with the continent's dependence on imports of oil and gas thrown into sharp focus by Russia's disputes over gas supplies to Ukraine and the EU. It will doubtless generate much-needed reassessment of the costs and benefits of new nuclear power, even among the greens who have devoted so much time and effort to shutting it down.


4 Comments

Julian Simon where are you?
"Biomass, crops grown for energy, needs farmland that Lovelock claims is already overstretched growing food."
Really know, US farmers are paid to fallow their land, destroy crops or the USDA buys and stores surpluses. And this guy thinks farmlands are overstretched?
Thankfully, he sees the light on nuclear power and DDT. Maybe the lemmings will fall in line. Right!

So what's to discuss?
Relearning about this so-called environmentalists dilema is getting boring.

Most all environmental scientists would accept nuclear energy as long as reactors are safe and there are secure ways to get rid of spent radioactive fuels.

It's really pretty simple.

Well there's this...
Maybe so, Stephen, but try telling it to fruitcakes like Fortunato, or the late, lamented Dano.

In all seriousness, that's the real point of what Lovelock and Patrick Moore and Stewart Brand are doing; telling the eco-cultists to get out of the way of implementing solutions.

Drink the Kool-Aid
I'll drink the human caused global warming Kool-Aid if it will start the contruction of nuclear power plants.
All those whining and crying about USA losing the PhD wars to China should cheer nuclear power. It is a challening endeavour requiring very well educated people to design and operate.
Nuclear waste is much easier to control that what comes out the smokestack.

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