The only argument against [nuclear energy] is a political one, that people won’t accept it, or people won’t want it. I don’t think there are any engineering or physics challenges that can’t be fairly easily addressed, and that includes the cost.
A golf-ball sized lump of uranium can deliver more than enough power to cover all your lifetime energy use. To get the same energy from coal, you’d need 3,200 tonnes of the stuff — a mass equivalent to 800 adult elephants, which would go on to produce more than 11,000 tonnes of CO2. That’s about 11,000 tonnes more than the uranium.
Many people aren’t comfortable with the danger posed by nuclear power. But given the climatic stakes, it’s worth asking: Just how much more dangerous is it compared to fossil fuels?
According to today’s guest, Mark Lynas — author of Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet (winner of the prestigious Royal Society Prizes for Science Books) and Nuclear 2.0. — it’s actually much, much safer.
Climatologists James Hansen and Pushker Kharecha calculated that the use of nuclear power between 1971 and 2009 avoided the premature deaths of 1.84 million people by preventing air pollution from burning coal.
What about radiation or nuclear disasters? According to Our World In Data, in generating a given amount of electricity, nuclear, wind, and solar all cause about the same number of deaths — and it’s a tiny number.
So what’s going on? Why isn’t everyone demanding a massive scale-up of nuclear energy to save lives and stop climate change? Mark and many other activists believe that unchecked climate change will result in the collapse of human civilization, so the stakes could not be higher.
Mark says that many environmentalists — including him — simply grew up with anti-nuclear attitudes all around them (possibly stemming from a widespread conflation of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy) and haven’t thought to question them.
But he thinks that once you believe in a climate emergency, you have to rethink your opposition to nuclear energy.
At 80,000 Hours we haven’t analysed the merits and flaws of the case for nuclear energy — especially compared to wind and solar paired with gas, hydro, or battery power to handle intermittency — but Mark is convinced.
He says it comes down to physics: Nuclear power is just so much denser.
We need to find an energy source that provides carbon-free power to ~10 billion people, and we need to do it while humanity is doubling or tripling its energy demand (or more).
How do you do that without destroying the world’s ecology? Mark thinks that nuclear is the only way:
“Coal is a brilliant way to run industry and to generate power, apart from a few million dead every year from particulate pollution, and small things like that.
But uranium is something like a million times more energy dense than hydrocarbons, so you can power whole countries with a few tons of the stuff, and the material flows and the waste flows are simply trivial in comparison, and raise no significant environmental challenges — or, indeed, engineering challenges.
It’s just doable, and it isn’t doable with any other approach that you can imagine.
Renewables are not energy dense, so you have to cover immense areas of land to capture enough solar power through photovoltaic technology to even go a small distance towards addressing our current energy consumption with solar. And wind likewise.”
How much land? In Nuclear 2.0 Mark says that if you wanted to reach the ambitious Greenpeace scenario for 2030 of wind power generating 22 percent of global electricity and solar power generating 17 percent, wind farms would cover about 1 million square kilometers. That’s about as much as Texas and New Mexico combined. Solar power plants would cover another ~50,000 square kilometers.
For Mark, the only argument against nuclear power is a political one — that people won’t want or accept it.
He says that he knows people in all kinds of mainstream environmental groups — such as Greenpeace — who agree that nuclear must be a vital part of any plan to solve climate change. But, because they think they’ll be ostracized if they speak up, they keep their mouths shut.
Mark thinks this willingness to indulge beliefs that contradict scientific evidence stands in the way of actually addressing climate change, and so he’s aiming to build a movement of folks who are out and proud about their support for nuclear energy.
This is just one topic of many in today’s interview. Arden, Rob, and Mark also discuss:
- At what degrees of warming does societal collapse become likely
- Whether climate change could lead to human extinction
- What environmentalists are getting wrong about climate change
- Why political and grassroots activism is important for fighting climate change
- The most worrying climatic feedback loops
- And much more
Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.
Producer: Keiran Harris.
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell.
Transcriptions: Zakee Ulhaq.