Jonathon Porritt's June 2021 Greenpeace article

by John

22nd June 2021

(Updated 24th June 2021)

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On 1st June 2021 Greenpeace published a blog piece by Jonathon Porritt titled "We don’t need nuclear power to tackle climate change". The intellectual honesty of this piece is quickly established by the subheading "I’ve always kept an open mind about nuclear power", followed in the first paragraph by "I’ve been ‘anti-nuclear’ since 1974".

Porritt expands on his open-mindedness in his April 2021 piece "Net Zero Without Nuclear" written for the campaign against Sizewell C. In this, as in the subheading to his Greenpeace blog, Porritt says "I’m still waiting for someone to prove me wrong". He says his mind "is still hungrily open". Maybe he could sate his appetite on the reports of the IPCC's Working Group 3, who assess the scientific consensus on Mitigation and Adaptation. They consistently find that we need all the clean energy technologies we can muster - renewables, nuclear, and Carbon Capture and Storage (with fossil fuels and with biomass) - to tackle climate change. But Porritt's hungrily open mind seems to be a fussy eater.

He does concede that nuclear has already made a significant contribution to decarbonisation (using the bizzarre metric of "18,000 reactor years of electricity generation") and that "We’d be in a much worse place today if all that electricity had been generated from burning coal or gas". He's not wrong: a study by NASA scientist Pushker Kharecha and veteran climate scientist James Hansen finds that by now nuclear energy has averted well over 2 million early deaths just from the air pollution produced by burning fossil fuels, and is saving around 80,000 lives every year. Another study, by Kharecha with his colleage Makiko Sato, finds that closing nuclear plants instead of coal kills tens of thousands more.

Of course other forms of clean energy, including hydro, geothermal, wind, solar, wave, and tidal, also avert deaths from fossil-fuel-produced air pollution, as well as the CO2 emissions which drive global heating. Although intermittent renewables are hanstrung in the extent to which they can do so by the need to back them up with firm energy in order to provide reliable electricity supplies; firm energy which almost invariably comes from fossil fuels. Even so combining such renewables with nuclear provides greater benefits than the same amount of either alone. Fitting Carbon Capture and Storage to the fossil fuel backup generators at least reduces their CO2 emissions and contribution to global warming: the IPCC's findings of the benefits of a "all of the above" approach of using renewables and nuclear and CCS makes sense.

However Porritt clearly has other priorities; he claims "times have changed, and the alternatives to nuclear power have performed better than almost anyone expected". Note the framing: "alternatives to nuclear", rather than alternatives to unmitigated fossil fuels. It's almost as if he's less interested in tackling climate change and deaths from air pollution than getting rid of nuclear energy. Oh, wait ...

"Happily, there is no longer any doubt about the viability of that alternative. In 2020, Stanford University issued a collection of 56 peer-reviewed journal articles, from 18 independent research groups, supporting the idea that all the energy required for electricity, transport, heating and cooling, and all industrial purposes, can be supplied reliably with 100% (or near 100%) renewable energy."

More of Porritt's intellectual honesty. That collection of articles was published not by "Stanford University", as if that prestigious institution had made a statement on the matter, but by one of their academic staff, professor Mark Z Jacobson. Jacobson is an acknowledged expert in the effects of aerosols on climate change, but his claims that whole world, could be powered by 100% renewables have been found wanting by the IPCC, and wildly in error by critics. Jacobson's own intellectual honesty is evidenced by his response to criticism; he sued the National Academy of Sciences for publishing a critical work, and sued the lead author of the paper - the only one of 21 co-authors who didn't have institutional backing to defend him - personally, for $10 million. (Before the case came to trial Jacobson withdrew his suit, claiming victory. He had indeed left his chief critic out of pocket by tens of thousands of dollars for legal fees, and it wasn't until some years later that his victim was able to obtain redress for his expenses through the courts.)

Global climate justice?

Errors in Jacobson's work (which forms 9 of the "56 peer-reviewed journal articles") aside, his models would allow Indian citizens a mere 1/5th the amount of energy their American counterparts enjoy by 2050. In a world in which global heating will drive temperatures in poorer but hotter countries like India to life-threatening extremes, making refrigeration and air conditioning, and the copious amounts of power they will need to operate them, a basic public health necessity, this represents a practically Trumpian assertion of first world privilege and contempt for the most vulnerable.

Problems?

It [nuclear energy] has proven incapable of overcoming its inherent problems of cost, construction delay, nuclear waste, decommissioning, security, let alone the small but still highly material risk of catastrophic accidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima.

Elsewhere on this site the issues of cost, construction speed, and nuclear waste are dealt with.

Porritt exhibits further intellectual honesty in describing Chernobyl and Fukushima as "catastrophic accidents". Chernobyl is confirmed to have killed fewer people than Organic beansprouts, and it was not radiation but only radiophobia, magnified if not created by Greenpeace, Porritt, and their ilk, which killed people at Fukushima. Would that non-nuclear "catastrophes" were so deadly.

Military connections?

Porritt ends by asking "Why do the main political parties still support nuclear power?". The naive answer might be because that's what the scientific consensus shows to be necessary to mitigate climate change, but this straightforward reason is clearly unacceptable to Porritt, who proposes an ulterior motive for the UK's civil nuclear energy programme; "that the Government’s principal case for nuclear power in the UK today is driven by the need to maintain the UK’s nuclear weapons capability – to ensure a ‘talent pool’ of nuclear engineers and to support a supply chain of engineering companies capable of providing component parts for the nuclear industry, both civilian and military". Does this make sense? Is there any likelihood that, without a civil nuclear energy programme, the UK government would abandon or even reduce its nuclear weapons programme? It seems unlikely but let's not pontificate; the question could by analysed with academic rigour. How many engineers trained in the civil nuclear energy sector move to the military sector? Does any such transfer of expertise significantly benefit the military sector? What parts of the civil nuclear supply chain also service the military sector? How much benefit does this bring to the latter?

Where's the evidence?

Porritt tells us that "The work of Andy Stirling and Phil Johnstone at Sussex University has shown the strength of these connections, demonstrating how the UK’s military industrial base would become unaffordable in the absence of a nuclear energy programme". This text is hyperlinked. Where does the link take us? To a meta-review of studies on the subject? To at least a peer-reviewed paper on the subject in a high-impact journal? No: the link is to a 2015 article in The Conversation. The Conversation claims to publish "research-informed journalism by academics to help you understand what’s really happening". The article is indeed by academics: research fellow Philip Johnstone, and professor Andy Stirling, at the University of Sussex' SPRU ("Science Policy Research Unit"). This is the same professor Andy Stirling who the following year co-authored an anti-nuclear paper so incompetent - they even made mistakes in calculating averages and percentages - that they had to retract it shortly after publication.

Is Johnstone and Stirling's article "research informed"? Does it draw on and cite rigorous research showing the strength of these claimed connections? Sadly no: it is an anti-nuclear diatribe citing a motely collection of, mostly, newspaper articles, a link to an anti-nuclear article by Johnstone on the SPRU's own blog, and an article in that high-impact peer-reviewed scientific journal "The Ecologist", by its sometime editor, the veteran anti-nuclear activist Oliver Tickell.

Stirling and Johnstone's article takes a consipratorial dive into the 'Deep State' where it simply speculates that "maybe the real commitment here is to maintaining Britain’s nuclear arsenal". Maybe it is, maybe it isn't; Stirling and Johnstone may make conspiracy theorist insinuation, but they do not present any evidence to make a case either way.

The one piece of evidence Stirling and Johnstone do present of a connection between military and civil nuclear engineering is that Rolls Royce – "the makers of Britain’s nuclear submarine reactors" - will take a "big share" of £100m worth of contracts for Hinkley Point C. Stirling & Johnstone don't say how much R-R's profits from this deal will somehow benefit Britain's weapons programme.

Swords into ploughshares

However Rolls Royce are not only involved in a tiny part of the £20bn+ Hinkley Point C project; they are also partners in a consortium designing and developing an SMR - a small(ish) reactor which they aim to put into production around the end of this decade. Whilst their design is not a civil version of the military submarine reactors Rolls Royce has been building for decades - there are significant differences in the design requirements of each type, and R-R says its civil SMR is not based on any defence-related nuclear research - nevertheless the company has a wealth of knowledge and experience from its military work which will enable it to produce civil reactors. Their SMR should be quicker to build and easier to site than huge plants like the EPRs being built at Hinkley Point C and proposed for Sizewell C and elsewhere. Such a spin-off of military technology to peaceful use ought to be welcomed and celebrated by anyone concerned more with effectively tackling climate change - the greatest crisis facing humanity at the moment - than with ideological objections to how we do so.


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