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Environmentalists talk up nuclear power in Pandora’s Promise

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Pandora’s Promise examines the arguments for nuclear power from an environmental perspective and explores why some people are passionately against it. Regardless of which side of the fence you sit on, with the UK government announcing plans to finance the next generation of nuclear recently, the issues it raises are as relevant as ever.

The film’s opening words are spoken by an anti-nuclear campaigner and demonstrate the challenges and opposition that the industry faces. “The nuclear industry is a death industry, it’s a cancer industry, it’s a bomb industry, it’s killing people and will for the rest of the time”, she says.

It shows poignant footage from the devastation created by a nuclear weapon at Hiroshima, the now abandoned power plant at Chernobyl and the Fukushima accident in 2011. It acknowledges that there is no other energy source that can cause the kind of damage that nuclear has the potential to, but still puts forward a convincing case to use nuclear as a replacement for fossil fuels.

The documentary speaks to several environmentalists, including author Mark Lynas, who openly admit they were opposed to nuclear energy sources, for a variety of reasons, but have since changed their position. They all give their own interesting perspectives on what caused their initial opposition and what resulted in them changing their mind.

Pandora’s Promise argues that renewables cannot plug the gap that will be left if we cut our reliance on polluting fossil fuels, and that growing population and wealth will further increase the need for energy. The film charts the history of nuclear and what has caused the public to fear and mistrust the industry.

The photos, stories and videos that came out of Hiroshima “cut deep”, explains Stewart Brand, an American author best known as the editor of the Whole Earth Catalogue, who was one of Blue & Green Tomorrow’s first interviewees. This left the public with the belief that nuclear is “not primarily an energy source [but] is primarily a weapon”, he adds.

This fear was further compounded by 1970s film The China Syndrome, anti-nuclear adverts placed by oil delivery companies and the misrepresentation in the media of nuclear disasters, such as Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.

The film looks at, and challenges, the usual arguments against nuclear power: that it’s unsafe, it causes radiation, the waste the process creates, its potential to be used as a weapon and the cost.

Anti-nuclear campaigners often use issues around the safety of nuclear, yet when you look at the morality rate for each energy source, nuclear is the second safest after wind. This compares to the 3 million people that die every year from air pollution as a result of fossil fuel plants, according to the film.

In the case of radiation, the film argues that it is difficult to communicate to the public what radiation is on how figures representing radiation relate to the wider world. The film crew take a electronic radiation counter to various locations, including sites that have experienced nuclear accidents, demonstrating that its is a natural occurrence.

When asked about nuclear plants leaking tritium, Gwyneth Craven, a novelist and journalist, answered, “If you ate one banana you would get more radiation exposure than you would if you drank all the water that comes out of the plant in one day.”

The concerns around nuclear proliferation are mentioned in the documentary but unsurprisingly there isn’t a solution for this issue. Richard Rhodes, an author and journalist, points out that there are around 38 countries with the technology to develop nuclear weapons yet none have. “We won’t get rid of nuclear weapons by forgetting how to make them, we will get rid of nuclear weapons by deciding we don’t want them around anymore”, he added.

Pandora’s Promise does what a documentary is supposed to do: it raises questions, makes the viewer consider their position and offers a starting point for a wider and more in-depth debate.

Pandora’s Promise is available to download on iTunes here.

Further reading:

Climate scientists: nuclear power vital in climate change fight

UK to build first nuclear plant in a generation, as Hinkley C is given go-ahead

Britons split three ways on attitude to nuclear power

Getting beneath nuclear power

Is the threat of proliferation enough to reject nuclear power?

Economy

Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?

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self-driving cars for green environment
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Zapp2Photo | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/zapp2photo

Technologists, engineers, lawmakers, and the general public have been excitedly debating about the merits of self-driving cars for the past several years, as companies like Waymo and Uber race to get the first fully autonomous vehicles on the market. Largely, the concerns have been about safety and ethics; is a self-driving car really capable of eliminating the human errors responsible for the majority of vehicular accidents? And if so, who’s responsible for programming life-or-death decisions, and who’s held liable in the event of an accident?

But while these questions continue being debated, protecting people on an individual level, it’s worth posing a different question: how will self-driving cars impact the environment?

The Big Picture

The Department of Energy attempted to answer this question in clear terms, using scientific research and existing data sets to project the short-term and long-term environmental impact that self-driving vehicles could have. Its findings? The emergence of self-driving vehicles could essentially go either way; it could reduce energy consumption in transportation by as much as 90 percent, or increase it by more than 200 percent.

That’s a margin of error so wide it might as well be a total guess, but there are too many unknown variables to form a solid conclusion. There are many ways autonomous vehicles could influence our energy consumption and environmental impact, and they could go well or poorly, depending on how they’re adopted.

Driver Reduction?

One of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles is their capacity to reduce the total number of vehicles—and human drivers—on the road. If you’re able to carpool to work in a self-driving vehicle, or rely on autonomous public transportation, you’ll spend far less time, money, and energy on your own car. The convenience and efficiency of autonomous vehicles would therefore reduce the total miles driven, and significantly reduce carbon emissions.

There’s a flip side to this argument, however. If autonomous vehicles are far more convenient and less expensive than previous means of travel, it could be an incentive for people to travel more frequently, or drive to more destinations they’d otherwise avoid. In this case, the total miles driven could actually increase with the rise of self-driving cars.

As an added consideration, the increase or decrease in drivers on the road could result in more or fewer vehicle collisions, respectively—especially in the early days of autonomous vehicle adoption, when so many human drivers are still on the road. Car accident injury cases, therefore, would become far more complicated, and the roads could be temporarily less safe.

Deadheading

Deadheading is a term used in trucking and ridesharing to refer to miles driven with an empty load. Assume for a moment that there’s a fleet of self-driving vehicles available to pick people up and carry them to their destinations. It’s a convenient service, but by necessity, these vehicles will spend at least some of their time driving without passengers, whether it’s spent waiting to pick someone up or en route to their location. The increase in miles from deadheading could nullify the potential benefits of people driving fewer total miles, or add to the damage done by their increased mileage.

Make and Model of Car

Much will also depend on the types of cars equipped to be self-driving. For example, Waymo recently launched a wave of self-driving hybrid minivans, capable of getting far better mileage than a gas-only vehicle. If the majority of self-driving cars are electric or hybrids, the environmental impact will be much lower than if they’re converted from existing vehicles. Good emissions ratings are also important here.

On the other hand, the increased demand for autonomous vehicles could put more pressure on factory production, and make older cars obsolete. In that case, the gas mileage savings could be counteracted by the increased environmental impact of factory production.

The Bottom Line

Right now, there are too many unanswered questions to make a confident determination whether self-driving vehicles will help or harm the environment. Will we start driving more, or less? How will they handle dead time? What kind of models are going to be on the road?

Engineers and the general public are in complete control of how this develops in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all the safety benefits of having autonomous vehicles on the road, but without any of the extra environmental impact to deal with.

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Economy

New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035

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renewable energy policy
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Eviart / https://www.shutterstock.com/g/adrian825

New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.

New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.

Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.

Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”

The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.

Zero net emissions by 2050

Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.

Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.

She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.

Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”

A worldwide shift to renewable energy

Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.

Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.

Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.

Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.

Sources: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-11-06/green-dream-risks-energy-security-as-kiwis-aim-for-zero-carbon

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-france-hydrocarbons/france-plans-to-end-oil-and-gas-production-by-2040-idUSKCN1BH1AQ

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