James Lovelock, the renowned British scientist who first postulated in his Gaia theory that the Earth itself is a single living organism, has come out strongly in favor of a massive expansion of nuclear power throughout the world as a salvo against impending global warming.
Lovelock, now 84 and an icon of environmentalism, declared his support for nuclear expansion in an op-ed piece in Britain’s Independent newspaper last week. “I am a Green, and I entreat my friends in the movement to drop their wrongheaded objection to nuclear energy.” Lovelock is concerned by recent indications of the onset of global warming, including Greenland’s melting ice sheet and an episode of extreme heat in Western Europe last summer.
Many environmental groups, including Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, are opposed to nuclear power and have rejected Lovelock’s call as environmental folly. These groups and their supporters warn that radioactive waste produced by nuclear fission is dangerous to all life forms for thousands of years, even if stored and disposed of according to best practices.
The international delegates at the Kyoto negotiations concluded that nuclear power is too expensive and would produce results too slowly to be a sensible choice to address climate change. In their 2003 study “The Future of Nuclear Power,” MIT researchers concluded that some 1,000 to 1,500 new reactors would have to be built worldwide by 2025 in order to put a dent in global warming. That is a tall order considering the cornucopia of economic, political, security and NIMBY challenges to building each plant.
The Washington, D.C.-based Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) argues that the construction and preparation of nuclear facilities and fuels actually uses a tremendous amount of fossil fuels and results in a substantial amount of pollution and greenhouse gases. NIRS and many other environmentalists argue that energy conservation and renewable technologies provide much cheaper, safer and cleaner ways to address global warming.
Lovelock disagrees. “Every year that we continue burning carbon makes it worse for our descendants and for civilization,” he says. “The Green lobbies, which should have given priority to global warming, seem more concerned about threats to people than with threats to Earth.” Paul Gunter of NIRS counters, “Promoting nuclear power to mitigate global warming would be simply trading one disaster for another.”