Green Nuclear energy – and what else? On alternatives to the diversification of the current energy model

The Spanish State is, like most European countries, highly dependent on energy, which comes from abroad. Its own energy is fundamentally renewable from hydraulic, wind but mainly solar; it has only small reserves of coal which is of poor quality compared to that of other European countries. Potentially in the current situation, some refining companies may be able to adapt hydrocarbons to the production system, although it would not contribute to a solution in the medium term from the point of view of energy and the environment.

The problem of our economy, with its highly intensive use of energy, is not only its dependence on foreign sources but its unsustainability in terms of climate and the energy crisis that affects us.

Global warming, a multifactorial dynamic, with the greenhouse effect today up front

Expert reports from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), are already quite conservative in their predictions as they leave out all phenomena with an exponential effect, such as methane emissions -a gas with a greenhouse effect eighty times greater than CO2- which at the moment are retained by permafrost and other currently frozen areas of the planet. Yet as they melt they already reflect the enormous problem of faster-than-predicted rates of global warming.

The greenhouse effect, created in the industrial age, is leading to an extraordinarily rapid phenomenon of evolution in terms of geological time. In just two centuries, with the use of coal, oil and gas, industrial society has released into the atmosphere a concentration of gases unknown since the Pliocene. The substantial difference is that due to unsustainable industrial models climate change takes place extremely quickly, too fast to give life the time to adapt. Thus, a process which impacts temperature, the availability of fresh water, and extreme climatic phenomena is generated, which translates into a drastic reduction in biodiversity, to the point that it is confirmed that the current dynamics of extinction of species -- the VI Mass Extinction -- is the most devastating and rapid that the Earth has known since the impact of a meteorite 65 million years ago.

The temperature of the earth, and the fact that it remains within certain thresholds, is a key element for the presence and availability of fresh water, fertility of the soil and, ultimately, the habitability of the biosphere. This, in short, affects ecosystems and our very existence (it should be noted that the Biodiversity Foundation points out that 40% of the economy depends on the services that ecosystems provide). In turn, it should be noted that said temperature is the result of a multifactorial complex of dynamics.

The first of these, the distance to the Sun and the evolution of our star. The sun, a medium-sized star, consumes its fuel, hydrogen, converting it into helium over billions of years. The tendency is for heat emission to increase. In the early periods of earth’s history, the heat that reached it was much lower and stabilised in its orbit long ago. In the Pliocene, when there was a concentration of CO2 particles comparable to today, the sun emitted 25% less heat. The greenhouse effect of the atmosphere at that time, between 5.3 and 2.5 million years ago, not only helped maintain temperatures within certain thresholds[1], or filter certain ultraviolet radiation, but also compensated for that lower heat by retaining it, making the earth's climate more temperate. At the time, this greenhouse effect contributed positively to maintaining a suitable temperature for life. However, today with 25% more heat from the sun, we have the same greenhouse effect as then, which means that our climate becomes excessively and dangerously hot.

The second factor refers to the gravitational axis of the planet that gives rise to light arriving at an angle and shape that influences the intensity of the heat that reaches us from our star. In the last long period of the Earth, the gravitational axis, which is less stable than in the age of the dinosaurs, is periodically modified, giving rise to long glacial periods of about 100,000 years and other temperate periods of about 10,000. Until the Industrial Revolution we were in a warm and benign period in geological terms, the Holocene.

This period ended with the advance of industrial society and the development of the Capitalocene[2] -- based on accumulation and fossil fuel-based energies which cause a species[3], the human, with its mode of production, to alter the atmosphere and the climate.

This is a more appropriate term than Anthropocene which generically attributes the human species as the cause, and not its relations of production and energy model. In this sense, we are witnessing a unique geological epoch, whose character is determined by a certain model of production and consumption, for which less than 10% of the richest human population is responsible, part of the industrial, agricultural, livestock, extractivist, transport sectors etc.- along with companies, and a small group of countries and territories (USA, EU, China, Russia and India), all beneficiaries of this model.

A special, but not minor, mention goes to role of diminishing, accumulating and distributing of heat performed by oceans, and the thermohaline currents within these, which are altered depending on the acidification of water. The melting of ice in Greenland or the polar regions by pouring "fresh" water into the oceans, clearly affects these currents, and can significantly alter the climate regionally.

In any case, another pressing problem is the increased cost and reduced availability and cheap accessibility of energy sources with a high energy density, such as fossil fuels, which are also fundamentally responsible for the emission of greenhouse gases. This is what has come to be called the energy crisis. This, verifiable with decreasing energy return rates, has been presenting itself for a few decades. It is causing a problem of supply and higher prices, which in turn is aggravated by other consequences such as international economic and geopolitical competition, which translates into conflicts such as the one suffered in Ukraine, or that which has been taking place recurrently in the Middle East.

No one objects anymore to the need to diversify energy, but which one, which combination of energy mix? How can it be conceived in order to undertake the energy and productive transition required for a sustainable economic model?

The diversification of energy in the face of the oil and gas crisis

The response to the oil crisis, after having come through peak-oil in 2006, was to resort to fracking which was based on poor quality oil, with a dispersed location, which was obtained by hydraulic fracturing at high economic and environmental cost –a profitable run recently exhausted. For some years now oil companies have stopped investing in new extraction infrastructure, reducing the capacity to obtain crude oil. In all that previous period, gas, especially combined cycle plants, seemed to be the main bet. However, Russia and Algeria have recently hit peak extraction from their fields, in addition to supply problems caused by gas pipelines that cross territories within different geopolitical orbits and international economic competitors. The Ukraine crisis corresponds to this problem, among other factors.

After the interruption and sabotage of the Nord Stream gas pipeline, with central Europe without supplies from Russia, all eyes are on Algeria or France. In a true exercise of cynicism, gas and nuclear energy have been declared, incomprehensibly, as green energies by the European Union. Natural gas is responsible, albeit to a lesser extent than oil, for the greenhouse effect, and there are still a couple of decades worth of deposits with, in the absence of armed conflicts, an accessible extraction route. Right now, Europe is receiving more gas from the United States, Saudi Arabia and Australia, but it is much more expensive as it has to come in liquefied form in ships and requires expensive regasification operations.

In all this debate, the idea that nuclear energy is an alternative is being revived. To what extent is such reconsideration reasonable?

Nuclear energy

Nuclear power emits very little greenhouse gas. It has low operating costs and its production is stable and uninterrupted, which makes it one of the most beneficial of the marginal price system.

Needless to say, since the Chernobyl catastrophe, modern plants have solved many safety and waste management problems.

However, they still have a set of problems, some of which are so serious that make them totally inadvisable in the long term. Let's see:

The initial investment costs are very high. This has meant that for years companies have given up building new plants, both in the Spanish case and in most Western industrial countries. There are currently five plants in Spain with seven reactors.

The nuclear power plants in Spain, in particular that of Garoña, in Burgos, have a security system comparable to that of the Fukushima plant, which even today continues to pour radioactive waters into the Pacific Ocean on a large scale and will have irreversible long-term effects in that ocean and on international fishing. In France, with 52 reactors, more than 30 are paralyzed as a result of problems with corrosion and lack of water for cooling; the country faces a serious problem as, at 77%, this is its main source of energy.

On a geological scale, the location of any nuclear power plant is not without risk. In the case of Fukushima its disaster originated in a tidal wave. Even though in the lifetime of a human being the ground seems stable, we are talking about phenomena such as earthquakes, without mentioning other natural phenomena, which although they present a low risk in the short term are a sure danger in the long term.

The same happens with the management of radioactive waste. Its duration and danger remain for tens of thousands of years. Who takes responsibility for this cost in the very long term? Nobody foresees it. Are nuclear cemeteries, such as the one located in El Cabril, Hornachuelos, in the province of Córdoba, exempt from the geological problems of tectonic plates that do not stop moving? No way. Are concrete silos enough? It does not seem so, not in the long run. Is there any material for drums that won't bend, warp or erode after thousands of years? No such material is known, and steel is also affected by these consequences over time.

Furthermore, nuclear power plants operate with material sources that are also finite. Uranium is finite, and its scarcity and limited location are known. In addition, its extraction is conflictive in geostrategic terms. The main reserves are in Australia, Kazakhstan and Russia.

The future goes through diversification, focused on renewables, distributed systems and the selection of energy use in more sober terms

The alternatives to this framework are neither gas nor nuclear energy. But it is true that the energy return rate of renewables is notably lower (some 20%) than oil and requires infrastructures highly dependent on fossil fuels for its manufacture.

We must establish a course of energy and production transition, which will require reviewing our model of production relations and questioning the many privileges of a minority, with a view to gradual and intense diversification and transition, a process which may last several decades. This presents us with a dramatic problem: we urgently need to make the transition to a new energy model and this, in turn, requires not only a huge amount of investment and the drastic minimisation of the use of dirty energies by others, but also a period of time that we have less of every day to be able to carry out the enormous work that it entails. The steps to take could be:

No building of any more nuclear power plants. Those that remain must be closed in the next years, and their contribution must be limited, while they close, to completing and stabilising the energy mix. Funds must be provided for the dismantling and management of radioactive waste in the very long term.

Only use fossil sources for the deployment of a basic first generation of infrastructure for renewables. It must be taken into account that, in forty or fifty years, the second generation will no longer be able to use fossil sources, except marginally and very selectively.

Promote self-consumption of solar power, installing it on all buildings rooves, expanding solar farms and wind farms in areas with fewer impacts on food production, the local population and on biodiversity, with a democratic debate on said selection and location, combined with eco-efficiency, proximity to residential areas and production, and with distributed models. Development of solar thermal power plants, including agreements with African countries of the Sahara, of infrastructures for geothermal power, the collection and preparation of biomass and other renewable sources.

Develop electrification in cities and in collective transportation systems, studying whether it is necessary to use alternatives to copper, a material that is currently basic in conventional electrical technologies and is scarce, like aluminum, less conductive but viable and more abundant.

Apply a policy of containment, reconversion and sobriety, of selecting uses of energy relevant to productive purposes and types and practices of consumption and transportation, based on the establishment of democratically agreed social priorities, on aspects related to food, mobility and essential public services.

It goes without saying that the energy model cannot be governed by market forms and marginal price systems. There must be a public extraction, production and supply system which, due to its strategic nature, adopts a diversified format, adapted to each location and that has a cooperative and community character. This implies democratic planning in all areas and levels, with broad popular participation in decision making.

14/10/2022ç

Originally published in Espacio Público

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