Paris, From Terror to Nukes

Terrorism concerns the creation of an excessive fear which can then be exploited for gain. It is fascinating to see subtly commingled over the UN COP21 climate conference in Paris the shadows cast directly by such terror alongside the fruits of another far less visible, far more subtle campaign of excessive fear - an exaggerated fear of nuclear energy, that is.

Irony at this level is almost a work of art, and one does have to chuckle a bit: while the world is huddled in Paris to map out the treacherous route to decarbonization, one major industrial country has already largely decarbonized that most central of emissions sectors, energy - namely, the host of those other 200 countries, France. But there's little celebration or even mention of its accomplishment: that is because it was achieved through the "dirty and dangerous" nuclear power, and France itself is now acting under a new post-Fukushima plan that would vitiate this achievement, cutting nuclear by a third unless it is reversed.

Let's compare some data on France and its old competitor Germany, now often seen as the 'greenest' industrial power. France has significantly fewer deaths and illnesses than Germany (and all other countries in Europe) from air pollution, as a result of nuclear power having displaced coal and other fossil emissions, while giving it some of the cheapest European electricity at the same time. In 2050, when Germany has finally completed its "Energiewende," it should still be producing some .2 Gt of CO2 a year from energy production. But France is producing just .35 Gt now, has already been producing about this much for decades, all while creating vastly more energy than it needs, helping power its neighbors such as Italy at the same time. Indeed, France is the largest exporter of electricity in the world, in 2004 providing almost a quarter of the electricity in Europe. One statistic, even if slightly exaggerated, might joggle the mind a bit: that is, that France creates its electricity with less than one tenth the carbon emissions of Germany per kWh. An order of magnitude less carbon than Germany, after all Germany's effort to 'green' its energy production with renewables? And 75% of the French fleet of nuclear plants were constructed in just 7 years! With no major accidents and such a record, it should be considered among the single greatest national accomplishments to date against climate change. But where's the champagne?

The IEA, the leading authority on energy matters, has stated that new nuclear power needs to be coming online at twice the rate currently taking place, and that by 2050 nuclear will need to be twice what it is today, if we want to stay within the 2C guardrail (a guardrail as secure as a rickety fence along a 1,000 foot cliff). If Greenpeace, Naomi Klein, and the rest of the climate advocates were serious about helping prevent climate catastrophe, they would not be fighting the old war against nuclear in modern crypto- fashion, hidden under saccharine Madison avenue-style slogans like "100% clean is 100% possible" and would also be pushing for a new "seven year plan" to greatly expand the newest, safest nuclear technologies, alongside an exponential growth in renewables, which of course are also needed. They are both necessary, the faster the better.

Meanwhile, buzz had been growing around a notion of "100% renewables by 2030," a rapidly spreading meme for which the scientific authority cited was invariably Mark Jacobson (based on this 2009 Scientific American article - but its newest incarnation, published two weeks ago, seems to tacitly acknowledge the impossibility of the earlier version, having pushed it back 20 years). Jacobson is a good-looking guy at Stanford University who clearly enjoys imparting sugar-coated words listeners love to hear. Then others involved in shaping climate fashions for the climate movement - the Naomi Kleins, etc - package Jacobson's competent but shaky claims, which lack above all that increasingly rare attribute, wisdom.

Happily, James Hansen, the world's most famous climatologist - someone endowed with just that wisdom - will be speaking along with Ken Caldeira and others this week at COP21, trying to make points on behalf of nuclear power and against the Jacobsons, Kleins, 350s, etc. Jacobson, however, is also attending COP21, and many will likely gobble up his words, since they play so well to the public, regardless of whether they know that reliable sources have called into question his whole program. And Jacobson is not really just an advocate for renewables - there is hardly any disagreement about the need to rapidly increase renewables, after all - but a crypto-anti-nuclear campaigner with questionable authority behind some of his claims on that subject. Jacobson is almost for the left's 'Big Green' what Patrick Michaels or Richard Lindzen were to the right's big oil, a competent, respectable academic lending modest credibility to what is at heart just slightly better than wishful thinking. His initial 2009 article provided a valuable thought experiment, but its results strongly demonstrated why "100% renewables by 2030" was so unwise (100% carbon-free should be the goal), and the climate doesn't give a damn about our left, right, or anyone's Madison avenue packaging.

Another thing hardly being celebrated by climate campaigners in Paris is the fact that the Académie des Sciences and the Académie Nationale de Médecine jointly published there the most authoritative report to date rejecting the so-called "LNT", or "linear no threshold" model for estimating radiation health impacts (in which radiation in any amount, no matter how small, is considered dangerous), and specifically warned against the kind of analyses often done by Jacobson (even assuming the LNT, he has been taken to task for its misuse), Greenpeace and many others, with relatively weak basis in evidence (there is growing evidence that minute amounts of radiation beyond background could even be beneficial), but which are clearly intended to frighten people away from nuclear power. Intentional creation of such exaggerated fear is quite literally a form of "terrorism," albeit of a highly abstracted kind.