Guest Author Tyson Wepprich

Digests for Debate: To minimize biodiversity loss, advocate for nuclear energy

Barry Brook and Corey Bradshaw argue that nuclear power should be considered a key component of future energy production to both mitigate anthropogenic climate change and reduce habitat degradation. Their open-access article in Conservation Biology is accompanied by an open letter to environmentalists asking them to objectively consider the pros and cons of nuclear power. More than 75 conservation scientists signed onto the letter to support the conclusions of the article.

Theirs is the first article about nuclear energy ever published by Conservation Biology. Brook and Bradshaw explain that the mix of energy sources we choose impact biodiversity conservation through the interaction of habitat degradation and climate change, both of which alter landscape connectivity. Even if our primary goal is to mitigate climate change, negative effects on biodiversity can result from land-use change, pollution, and accidents associated with different modes of energy production.

If your main concern is maintaining habitat connectivity for sensitive species, you might find the land-use footprint of carbon-neutral energy problematic. Examples of energy projects that impact connectivity include the proposed Soda Mountain Solar Project adjacent to the Mojave National Preserve potentially impacting bighorn sheep movement, numerous hydropower projects in the Andes fragmenting the Amazon river basin and flooding species-diverse forest (Finer & Jenkins 2012), and wind turbine farms transforming landscapes with new access roads and transmission lines (Diffendorker & Compton 2014).

Methods

Brook and Bradshaw compare three future energy scenarios: a business-as-usual plan for 2035 that relies on fossil fuels, a Greenpeace plan for 2050 that includes no nuclear energy with their mostly renewable portfolio, and the authors’ plan for 2060 that focuses on nuclear and renewable energy. They claim that their proposed energy mix would have less than half of the greenhouse gas emissions, require half of the land-use footprint, and cost two trillion US$ less compared to the Greenpeace scenario.

The article compares the costs and benefits of seven energy sources for electricity in categories such as cost, carbon emissions, safety, land-use, and waste. They rank the energy sources across all categories using different weightings (corresponding to different values) and combine using a decision-making analysis framework. Nuclear and wind energy are best overall; coal and biomass energy are the worst.

Much of the article is dedicated to sharing new technologies on the horizon that would make nuclear energy better as far as cost, waste, safety, and weapons proliferation. Nuclear energy is illegal in Australia, where the authors live. The authors encourage environmentalists (and Australian politicians) to acknowledge the tradeoffs of all energy sources rather than exclude nuclear energy from the potential mix of energy sources used to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Brook and Bradshaw share their methodology and assumptions openly in the paper’s supplement.  I examined the supplement critically and tried to verify whether any issues I had mattered for their conclusions. I suspect that others critical of nuclear energy will scour the supplement, too. I commend the authors for sharing it for review.

Assumptions

  1. Carbon-capture technology for coal and gas plants is assumed for the authors’ scenario, but specifically excluded for the Greenpeace scenario. This is due to Greenpeace arguing against investment in “clean-coal” technology in their published energy plan. However, if carbon-capture is economically viable in the future, it’s more believable that all 3 energy futures would have equal access to it to mitigate emissions from coal and gas burning.

In the paper, the dramatic benefit of the authors’ plan in terms of carbon emissions (less than ½ that of the Greenpeace plan) completely reverses (more than double that of the Greenpeace plan) when both use the same proportion of carbon-capture coal and gas. The fact that the emissions benefit for the authors’ plan shown in Figure 1 is based on carbon-capture technology and not nuclear energy weakens their argument.

Note that these emissions calculations are only based on power-station output and not life-cycle analyses. For a detailed literature review of electricity cost and life-cycle emissions of different energy sources, I recommend the Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the IPCC summarized in their Figure 7.7.

  1. Land-use calculations are conservative for nuclear energy and liberal for solar energy. Rooftop solar panels are not considered, which would reduce land-use requirements. Uranium mining is not included in land-use for nuclear energy (although mining is for coal and gas) because the authors assume that the Generation IV reactors in the future will only require our accumulated nuclear waste as fuel. Although this may be true in 2060, it does not make sense to me to exclude uranium mining if we are evaluating the land-use of nuclear reactors we will be building in the next few years.

McDonald et al. (2009) confirm that nuclear energy has one of the lowest land-use requirements even when mining and waste storage is included. I do not think that Brook and Bradshaw’s land-use assumptions drastically change the argument for nuclear. Please add in the comments if you have a source addressing the percent solar capacity that would be established on existing infrastructure versus new land-use.

Conclusion

When Barry Brook visited my institution last year, he admitted that he was an optimist when it came to technological advances. I think it would be great to see other articles that argue for other energy sources in such a positive light (algae fuel, anyone?). After reading the article and reviewing other sources, I agree that nuclear energy should be included in the future energy mix, especially when considering land-use conversion as a primary driver of biodiversity loss. Even though I am not as optimistic as Brook and Bradshaw, I would rather see reactors in Brazil and Peru than hydropower dams and new transmission lines in the Amazonian rainforest that greatly disrupt natural connectivity in the landscape.

Let us know what you think in the comments, especially if you think I am missing key points.

Resources

Brook B. W.,  and C. J. A. Bradshaw. 2014. Key role for nuclear energy in global biodiversity conservation. Conservation Biology. doi: 10.1111/cobi.12433

Bruckner T., I. A. Bashmakov, Y. Mulugetta, et al.  2014. Energy Systems. In: Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.

Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the IPCC

Diffendorfer J. E., and R. W. Compton. 2014. Land cover and topography affect the land transformation caused by wind facilities. PLoS ONE 9(2): e88914. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0088914

Finer M., and C. N. Jenkins. 2012. Proliferation of hydroelectric dams in the Andean Amazon and implications for Andes-Amazon connectivity. PLoS ONE 7(4): e35126. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0035126

McDonald R. I., J. Fargione, J. Kiesecker, W. M. Miller, and J. Powell. 2009. Energy sprawl or energy efficiency: Climate policy impacts on natural habitat for the United States of America. PLoS ONE 4(8): e6802. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0006802

 

2016-10-14T10:10:42+00:00 January 15th, 2015|

About the Author:

Tyson Wepprich
Tyson Wepprich is a PhD student at North Carolina State University. He researches insect responses to climate warming and conservation strategies resilient to global changes. After growing up in St. Charles, Missouri, Tyson came to North Carolina to go to Duke University. Before starting graduate school, he taught science in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, his favorite place in the Eastern US.