I feel in this case a bit like Gandalf, giving the ring to Frodo. It’s dark times and the armies of Mordor are massing. There’s one solution, but it requires that we destroy a great source of power. It’s a seductive source of power, and it’s enslaved us all and it’s destroying our world. You listener are my Frodo.
The Rational View is a weekly series hosted by me, Dr. Alan Scott, providing a rational, evidence-based perspective addressing important societal issues. Hello, and welcome to another episode of the rational view. I’m Dr. Al Scott. On this episode, I’d like to talk to you about nuclear the other N word. I’m not going to focus on nuclear though I’m going to focus on why we need to discuss nuclear. So if you haven’t been living under a rock, you know that the climate change debate is highly polarized. It’s a tribalistic issue. You have left and right and no center in the debate. tribalism in this case trumps reason and as background if you want I have other podcasts one discussing the science of climate change and another discussing the issues around tribalism and why people don’t listen. So how have you arrived at your position in the climate change and renewable versus nuclear energy debate? New information is coming out all the time. It’s an active area of research. And it’s a very interesting area that I think we should look at from a public policy perspective. Is your opinion based on unbiased research? Are you listening to your trusted peers? Would you be willing to go against these peers if new information came to your attention? Are you willing to listen and reevaluate your position?
So to set up the debate on one side of the issue, you know, that the science is clear, carbon dioxide is building up in the atmosphere, and it’s nearing a tipping point where positive feedbacks could kick in. It’s hard to predict the intensity and the scale of these positive feedbacks. But we’re in new territory, we’ve never been here before. And we’re relying on models that have been developed in another scenario, to try and predict how bad it’s going to be. And we just don’t really know how bad it will get if we continue with the status quo. Environmentalists have been pushing to go fully renewable and build solar panels and wind farms, to try to displace fossil fuel burning. On the other side of the issue. If you’re on the right, you probably feel that hysteria is overwhelming reason in this debate. There’s no reason to panic and endanger the economy and jobs. Oil has been the basis of our prosperity up until now. And there’s no real good reason to take a flyer and stop going where we’re now it’ll cause more damage. Nuclear energy is the elephant in the room that nobody talks about. If you’ve watched Michael Moore’s ‘Planet of the Humans’ documentary, it shows up the faults of renewables. But there’s a striking piece missing the elephant is not discussed. There is not a single mention of the word nuclear in this whole documentary, it should have been renamed ‘What Would a World Without Nuclear Look Like’. So, if you’re interested in this topic, please like my podcast, send a comment and share it with your friends.
To dig a little deeper, then people obviously have recognized that the prosperity that we have right now in our society has been driven by fossil fuels the whole industrial revolution, from coal burning to oil, oil, and gas, all of these things have given us the power to transform our world and become rich. We enjoy flying through the air in a metal tube, like Roman gods on Sun chariots. I love to be able to walk into a room and turn on lights with a flick of my finger, like some sort of God. We love the growl of our combustion engines as we tear across the wilderness on a narrow strip of asphalt.
And what environmentalists ask of us to try to forestall the climate coming climate catastrophe is difficult. It’s challenging and it’s expensive. And it doesn’t seem like it’s gonna work. The environmentalists sound like prophets of doom to many people, and rational people don’t listen to prophets of doom, they come and go and civilization doesn’t end. We’ve never seen it end. Prophets of doom are always wrong. And yet, if you look at history, in the long term, civilizations do rise and fall. At some point in the Roman Empire, they were prophets of doom that were right, and so on in every civilization in history except the current one, there’s no reason to think that our civilization will be permanent. The experience of a human lifetime unfortunately doesn’t provide people with the proper tools to prepare for major civilization ending changes or, catastrophes. And a lot of this comes from starvation, interruption of the food supply interruption of the water supply. These are things that are linked to climate in a lot of cases. And humanity has a poor track record when it comes to exploiting a shared resource like the climate and the environment and the atmosphere. That’s been discussed previously, under the topic of tragedy of the commons, people share it, they gain benefits from it, so they competitively exploit it. It’s very difficult to step down from competitively exploiting a shared natural resource, because someone else will be using it more than you and it feels unfair. So it’s hard to be the first one to step away from that. For example, the Grand Banks cod fishery collapsed decades ago. Newfoundland fishing communities in Canada probably wish the government had reacted more quickly and more forcefully to overfishing. But no politician wanted to step up and make the painful changes to stop fishing while the fish were still plentiful, or seemed plentiful. Same thing with passenger pigeons. Once the most numerous bird in North America, now it’s completely extinct because they were tasty. Bluefin tuna are becoming very rare, hard to get. Tropical rainforest being burned for agriculture and palm oil and cattle. So in the environment, the alarm was raised decades ago. And from a scientific standpoint, you know, the atmospheric scientists were very happy, they had just pushed through the Montreal Protocol in 1987, which prevented chlorofluorocarbons being used in accelerants and aerosols, because they were destroying the ozone layer. And this was signed and successfully phased out and the ozone layer since that time has recovered. And so just after 1987, they went on to the next big issue that they saw coming for the changes that man was putting into the environment, and these are carbon dioxide, greenhouse gases. And so they had a follow-on meeting similar to the Montreal Protocol, by the UN. And they were gonna, you know, let’s phase out fossil fuels and move on to the next thing. Well, society didn’t follow through like they did on CFCs chlorofluorocarbons. The oil industry scrambled to spread uncertainty, just like the tobacco industry did, said, maybe we’re not sure that oil is doing this, maybe we don’t think the environment can do this, maybe we’re not certain we need to study it more.
Well, it worked. Nothing happened. populist leaders on both ends of the political spectrum have really provided society with no clear direction on the safest path forward for civilization. So maybe they are also to blame. The rational center seems to be notably absent from this entire public discourse. The right has put its collective head in the sand pretending that climate change doesn’t exist. And now pretending that there’s nothing we can do about it. And to a certain extent, they’re right, no one has put forward a good way to do this without destroying civilization. Think about that. The left is pushing these massive solar and wind power mega projects. But from my research, these can’t address the issue. I’ve looked around; people that are serious power enthusiasts have looked at this, and they’ve said the more renewables you put, the problem is they’re not constant.
They fluctuate and you need a huge natural gas burning backup to support solar and wind because when the sun is, is gone, it’s dark, and the wind dies down. There’s no way that batteries can supply enough power. So you need this huge new gas plant to pick up the slack. The only other way forward without these mega projects is to return to a preindustrial agrarian society and some people are pushing that and that just doesn’t work either. So we need these huge backups for renewables to work. And it just doesn’t make sense. The solutions out there don’t make sense. The quiet moderate majority to which I’m trying to speak now is paralyzed to inaction due to both the well funded misinformation agenda being foisted upon us by the oil industry, as well as the lack of a realistic solution from the left.
So if you’ve listened to my podcast on tribalism, you’ll know that most people are more than willing to listen to the comforting voices of their tribal leaders, and don’t want to think for themselves. And that’s no more true than in this issue. And people are very good at avoiding cognitive dissonance, they can listen to their leaders, and seek out sources that support their pre-existing viewpoint, especially if they don’t want to think about it. So the deniers are very open to finding fault with scientists. They find themselves in this peculiar position of siding with oil billionaires, against these university researchers with relatively little money or funding. And I know a lot of these people that do the work on Science and Environment. And many of these people have, you know, gone into academia, despite the possibility of going for high paying industry jobs. And the reason is that they want to improve the planet. These people go into science to learn and to help. But the deniers are in this position where they have to demonize them somehow.
Now, it’s easier to believe in some sort of global science conspiracy if you can caricature the opposition. The face of the environmentalist is Al Gore and David Suzuki these pretty well-heeled lobbyists and professional speakers. You don’t really see the grad student in the non-air-conditioned university lab running computer simulations, and you don’t picture them as the voice of science. But these are the people that are doing the basic research that have told us where we’re going with the environment. And these are the people that are raising the alarm flags, Suzuki and Gore are just popularizers. So these researchers, these basic researchers from all around the globe have got together to write the IPCC report on climate change, that the UN has put forward. That’s rang the alarm bell that we need to change in the next decade. Researchers from right leaning and left leaning countries have gotten together and agreed on what the data says and where we’re going to put aside any religious and political differences and said, ‘We all agree on this’. 1000s of them got together and said, ‘This is the best science and this is what we think is going to happen unless we make a change immediately’.
So as I said, people are very good at dealing with cognitive dissonance. So to assauge their disquiet and disbelieving the experts and staying comfortable they need to demonize expertise, and they need to demonize knowledge and characterize scientists as different–as elitists in ivory towers. And we see this in the US: the Republican administration has taken to demonizing the press for reporting the truth, and telling you that the truth is lies, and false news. Anything that disagrees with the carefully constructed anti-expertise fantasy world pushed by Fox. And this has led to a situation that’s really crazy, it’s allowed the ruling party to flaunt the law by straight up lying. And the US because of this is no longer a respected leader on the world stage like they used to be. Children have become the Messianic figures by just echoing the experts and saying that the emperor has no clothes. So if you’re on the right, and you still don’t believe, let’s go forward, and let’s assume, let’s assume that the scientists are right and the environment is at a tipping point. And at risk of irreversible nonlinear changes that can’t be predicted.
We know that the atmosphere has been changed beyond CO2 levels that have existed since the emergence of Homo sapiens, you know, hundreds of 1000s of years ago. Ecosystems may be in danger of collapse due to rapid climate change the rapid pace of manmade climate change. And yet the environmentalists are not without sin in this. They are also a problem. Yes, they listen to the science of climate change. But they haven’t provided a feasible path to a realistic solution. Paper bags and straws aren’t going to fix this. Now they’ve been fighting against big polluters and industry for decades, the environmental movement has made great strides in cleaning up our air and our water. And unfortunately, I think the most vocal elements of the environmental movement seem to have gone beyond the evidence in this case just a little bit.
Now, yes, there are problems with nuclear. I agree. But it seems to me that the most extreme elements in the environmental movement have this mysticism of nature. Where they look askance at any technological solutions. They decry genetically modified food and push organic, they reflectively mistrust industry, chemicals have become a bad word. In this sort of environment, rational investigation and discussion is overlooked, I think in a rush to ban products based on who makes them rather than on their innate qualities or problems, they’re banned on the possibilities of problems. And sure, a certain caution is warranted, we need to test and test and test. And it’s hard to know when the balance of evidence becomes positive in these cases, or how much evidence is necessary. Solar and wind, their preferred solutions, totally renewable energy forms. However, they require extensive fossil fuel backups and load leveling technology currently provided by natural gas. So solar and wind are actually being strongly supported by the oil industry right now, because they know that they’re going to have a job building gas plants alongside of it. And so we know that, yes, solar and wind will help in the transition. Going to renewables lightens the load to a certain extent. But it’s really widely recognized that these low-density power sources are insufficient to supplant the energy density supplied by cheap and easy fossil fuels, and especially on the necessary timescales to address the climate catastrophe.
Now, governments are pushing carbon taxes and cap and trade programs. And yes, these were, you know, given the Nobel Prize in Economics for a way to slowly transition from fossil fuels to renewables. Using the market forces, it’s a very conservative right-wing way to approach this. I’m surprised that conservatives are fighting against it, because it does seem to be a low-government way to do it. But unfortunately, it’s too late for these to make the changes on the necessary timescales. We’ve been delayed too long from the early 90s. We can’t flatten the curve. Now, it would have worked if we implemented these things 30 years ago, but there was too much delay from the oil industries and from the right. So cap and trade and carbon taxes just are not the right solution. Right now, we need a massive project on the scale of an Apollo program, or we basically need to overhaul our entire energy ecosystem in less than a decade. If the scientists are right. And this seems hopeless, but hope, hope yet remains. There is hope. And even in the darkest times, there humans can pull together and bring forth a change to save the world here. There does exist a sound environmentally friendly solution to this dilemma that will allow modern society to continue mostly unchanged. And it’s not new technology. It’s nuclear. It’s realistic, it’s achievable. And if we tackle the sort of delaying issues like licensing and protests, we can get them implemented in the time remaining. Now I feel in this case a bit like Gandalf giving the ring to Frodo it’s dark times and the armies of Mordor are massing. There’s one solution, but it requires that we destroy a great source of power. It’s a seductive source of power, and it’s enslaved us all and it’s destroying our world. You listener are my Frodo you alone must stand up to those on all sides who will subvert you
Even the fellowship of the green will turn on you. The renewables are well meaning but they’ve been deceived and they do not have the strength to displace oil and throw the ring into Mordor. So people on both sides of this issue have started to use the N word, timidly. Is it possible that nuclear energy is the olive branch that will heal the divide? A clean energy source that provides jobs? Many people feel that nuclear energy is the only alternative power source with sufficient energy density to quickly replace the majority of fossil fuel applications.
Now, as soon as we talk about nuclear the risks need to be tackled, the risks of nuclear waste and radioactive contamination are real. And they need to be addressed. Now, because of public pressure on the industry, the industry has been forced to go through a very painful and intense safety introspection for the past 30 years. And they’re still operating safely in most cases. And this is far and above the amount of investigation that any other energy sources have gone in.
There’s been a lot of progress made. What does it look like? How should a rational person look at these risks and balance them, as compared to the risks of continuing with fossil fuels and climate change? That’s a hard, hard issue. And politicians are poorly placed to make this trade. They just don’t have the background in science. I mean, we need more science in our public discourse. Look at France: France, has 75% of its power provided by nuclear energy since the 70s. And 17% of this is from recycled nuclear fuel, they’re actually recycling their nuclear waste and using it as fuel and their new generators. Nuclear requires significantly fewer natural resources and land area to build the same generating capacity as solar and wind and that means significantly fewer mining projects and significantly fewer waste products. But nuclear energy has a very poor reputation. And this has been pushed by environmental groups. Since a series of poorly timed catastrophes, starting with the Chernobyl actually was starting with Three Mile Island just after The China Syndrome movie came out. But then going on to the Chernobyl disaster in the 80s, where a nuclear reactor with safeties were disabled by tired workers, and it exploded. It wasn’t a nuclear explosion, but the reactor exploded and spewed nuclear waste across the countryside. 29 people died in that explosion and subsequent cleanup efforts. And then there’s the meltdown at Fukushima after the tsunami and earthquake. A huge huge earthquake followed by tsunami took out some backup power took out the cooling generators, one of the reactors melted down. But in the nuclear disaster itself, nobody died. Fukushima nobody has died due to the nuclear radiation. Put that into perspective. And think about it. This is one of the worst things that could happen a nuclear meltdown.
Now, sure, several people died due to the fear response of the public in evacuating against the advice of the nuclear safety people–evacuated this whole area and people died because of that. But put it into perspective: to get the same amount of power, for example, as Chernobyl using solar energy, you need to cover roughly the same area as the devastation zone, the solar panels, look at how much land is used up by hydro projects, flooding huge tracts. In North America, billions of kilowatt hours are being safely generated by nuclear power every year. The largest North American nuclear accident over this whole period was Three Mile Island, they released a little bit of radioactivity into the environment and nobody died. And nobody can really say that anyone got cancer from that either. Now, of course, there’s a lot of controversy over that and the Greens will say probably something different. But it’s worth investigating and looking at both sides of the issue. Don’t just look at the ones that support your viewpoint, look at all of the sources and see which is most useful to you. And also challenge your beliefs in the Fukushima disaster as I say nobody died.
Compare it to fossil fuels where roughly 3 million people die every year from air pollution due to burning. 10s of 1000s of people have drowned in major hydroelectric dam failures. More people fall off rooftops installing solar panels and die than have been killed in the history of nuclear power. That’s a bit of a provocative comment, but it’s true. Nuclear currently supplies about 10% of the world’s energy and less than 0.01% of the fatalities. So in terms of safety, it’s more than three orders of magnitude safer than currently accepted power generation methods. Why are people not talking about it? The waste is a very tiny volume comparatively. The waste of nuclear processes is a very tiny volume and it’s contained in solids. The radioactive waste products from nuclear are stored in pools instead of being spewed into the environment like from fossil fuels. Coal burning plants release more radioactivity into the environment than nuclear. Because of the residual radioactivity of the stuff that they burn. Nuclear can get us through this difficult time. In an upcoming podcast, I’m going to be bringing you an interview with an expert on nuclear safety that can address some of these challenging questions better than I can. And, as I say, politicians are afraid to tackle this issue. There’s too much polarization. And it takes time and money and we need to address the real issues we need to talk about this. So those of you who have listened to this podcast and understand where I’m coming from, you need to be my Frodo, we need to go forth and tackle the big guys, we need to mobilize the rational majority to pressure the governments of the world to replace all fossil fuel electrical generating capacity with modern safe nuclear generators, supplemented by renewable sources, and we need to do this in 10 years. And this is the perfect time to be discussing it because people are using our money as stimulus to recover from COVID and we need to make sure it’s directed in the right way or we’re gonna lose this opportunity to save our world. Thank you for listening.