The case for nuclear is obvious to us. So firstly we apologize for waiting so long to write this post. Having worked in the industry for almost two decades we have neglected that which to most of you is the most important question of all;
What are the advantages and disadvantages of nuclear energy?
Nuclear energy pros and cons
The convincing case for nuclear is made in many places. However, this is still a much-debated topic and in the main is failing in that many people are still not convinced by, or continue to be against nuclear energy.
There are many advantages of nuclear energy and as with all available technologies, there is a number of disadvantages of nuclear energy. Get Into Nuclear is not positioned to reinvent the wheel or produce unique content, particularly on a topic as this that is much better presented elsewhere.
We recently came across a podcast from 80,000 Hours (which is a great podcast and website) in which Mark Lynas talked about climate change, societal collapse, and nuclear energy. Below we have cut the transcript in which nuclear energy is discussed.
This is by far the most compelling case for nuclear that we have come across. Give it a listen by clicking here or read the excerpted transcript below.
Robert Wiblin: Okay. Let’s push on towards talking about specific ways of addressing climate change. The first step, let’s cover one of your preferred solutions to climate change, which, as you’ve mentioned, is nuclear power. In 2014, you published ‘Nuclear 2.0: Why a Green Future Needs Nuclear Power’, which makes the case for a big scale up of nuclear power, more than doubling the number of plants over 15 years. I really enjoyed this book because it covers kind of all of the key issues that you wanted to raise very clearly and very quickly. You could finish the book in one session, which is something I wish was the case of more books. You also just throw in a lot of numbers to really explain why you hold the views that you do. So yeah, in brief, for the audience, can you explain what makes you so enthusiastic about nuclear energy?
Mark Lynas: It comes down to physics, actually, so you’ll like that. It’s really to do with the energy density of nuclear as a fuel, and that’s the key issue if you’re concerned about scalability. You’ve got to find an energy source which provides carbon-free power to a 10 billion strong population, at the same time as people have probably doubled their energy demand, or tripled it, even more, given that most of the world still under consumes in relation to us in richer countries.
Mark Lynas: How do you do that without destroying the rest of the world’s ecology, as there’s not really any other way of doing it than nuclear? Fossil fuels are already very energy-dense, particularly given that they come from underground. Hydrocarbons are an incredibly adaptable and versatile way of powering long-distance transport, for example. Coal is a brilliant way to run industry and to generate power, apart from a few million deaths 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, really, and the materials flow 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.
Mark Lynas: 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. The power density per unit of land area is very low for renewables and very high for nuclear, and the difference is orders of magnitude.
Arden Koehler: So if that’s the case for nuclear or for scaling up nuclear, what do you think is the best argument against scaling up nuclear power? What’s the most likely way you could be wrong about this?
Mark Lynas: The only argument against is a political one, that people won’t accept it, or people won’t want it, so nothing to do with engineering. I don’t think there are any engineering or physics challenges that can’t be fairly easily addressed, and that includes the cost. Yeah, nuclear is very expensive at the moment, but that’s because it’s trying to satisfy safety concerns, which are taken vastly more seriously than any other type of infrastructure project, and therefore require multiple redundant safety approaches, which cost a huge amount. You’ve got to build, I think, the EPR reactor at Hinkley… They talk about it’s like building a cathedral inside a cathedral. That’s the kind of engineering which we’re left with to try to reassure the public that this isn’t an existential threat. What’s that? That’s not engineering. It’s a psychological challenge. It’s a political challenge. The only way that I think it’s wrong is if people won’t accept it, and we waste time trying to do it instead of simply paving over whole countries with solar panels, if that’s the only way that’s mostly acceptable.
It comes down to physics, actually
Arden Koehler: Just to clarify quickly on the cost point, are you saying you think we should have less safety redundancy in nuclear power, or more in the others or something when you talk about this cost being inflated for nuclear, and that being artificial?
Mark Lynas: Well, it is one of the major cost drivers. No one in the nuclear industry would ever say “Let’s save costs by reducing our safety components”. But those of us who are not in the industry can say, “Well, look. Why is it that nuclear has to fulfill this safety concern vastly more than anything else?” Cars aren’t that safe. Nothing’s that safe.
Robert Wiblin: Coal power is not that safe at all. It’s the reverse.
Mark Lynas: Well, no, not only coal, but even wind and solar aren’t that safe in terms of numbers of fatality per gigawatt-hour, or however you want to quantify it. People fall off roofs putting solar panels on, and wind turbines fall apart and whatever, so nothing’s completely safe. Even in the worst-case scenario, nuclear accidents, at least with the type of technologies we’re using, I wouldn’t use Chernobyl because that’s not the kind of reactor that we’ve got built anywhere else. But say Fukushima in Japan, which was about the worst, like a triple meltdown in the context of a much wider natural disaster, that’s about as bad as it can get. How many people died from radiation? Zero. That’s not even on the same scale as Piper Alpha, where the oil rig blew up and killed 150 people or any mid-range industrial accident.
Mark Lynas: But why is it that nuclear has to shoulder these immense costs? Because of this perception that it’s somehow an existential risk. You see this all the time. People say, “Well, imagine if”… A lot of Greens say this, “Imagine if one nuclear power plant somehow contaminated another one, you get this cascading fail”. They actually imagine this is a pathway to human extinction. I’ve never heard anything so stupid, but people’s psychology is so mixed up on this. It’s very difficult to draw a line between what’s psychology and what’s engineering in terms of how you deal with the safety issue, but just to finish up, yes, let’s not have to have a compromise between safety and cost. Let’s move to different kinds of designs and reactors that are passively safe, where you can walk away from them and they will shut themselves down, and there won’t be any release of radioactivity in almost any imaginable scenario. Those designs exist, and they should be available and cheaper than what we are using at the moment, fortunately.
How technology has improved since 2014
Robert Wiblin: In 2014, your main concern was also cost, but there were a bunch of other things you’d like to see improved about nuclear power, as this kind of modular designs, and using different fuels. How has the technology come along in the last six years in terms of cost and safety, and I guess, practicality?
Mark Lynas: Well, if you’re looking at light-water reactors, Hinkley’s thing is at least being built on a schedule at the moment. It looks very expensive because it’s a huge capital cost over a long build, so you don’t start getting payback for quite a long time. The cost of capitalism is really the main issue with infrastructure projects of that nature, but it’s the same for building a bridge or the Scottish Parliament, or pretty much anything, actually. We’re not good at doing that in Western countries anymore. It always looks eye-wateringly expensive to do something big. Look at HS2, the high speed rail. It’s in the hundreds of billions, I think now, in terms of what the projected cost of that is. The Victorians just went ahead and built these things.
Renewables are not energy-dense, so you have to cover immense areas of land to capture enough
Mark Lynas: Cost is a moving target anyway, but some of the small modular reactors and the more advanced designs have come a long way. ThorCon, for example, which is one of the molten salts thorium designs, has got most of the way towards working with the Indonesian government on a prototype and potential build out there, which I think is really interesting. Their design is completely passively safe. They’re looking at a faster route, which I think is about $1,500 per kilowatt in terms of the CapEx, so it’s about a fifth of the cost of any EPR. That’s what I mean. Obviously, these are quoted prices, and you don’t know until you actually do the thing. Even then, the prototypes are the first of a kind cost, which is obviously a lot higher than the nth of a kind cost when you’re doing lots and lots of these things. If our only roadblock that’s in the way of stopping climate change is making nuclear cheaper, I’m sure we can do it, just as what’s happened with solar. Solar is now way cheaper than it was, again, orders of magnitude, than it was a couple decades ago, and nuclear can do the same.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. So speaking of which, costs of solar and batteries have just come down a lot since even 2014 when you wrote that book, and maybe they’ve been even been coming down faster than people predicted then. Has that made you reconsider at all whether nuclear is really necessary and whether we might be able to do it just with renewables if we had to?
Mark Lynas: No, because the power density of renewables doesn’t change. That’s a physical reality, which is related to the amount of sunshine or kinetic energy that you can harvest from a particular unit of land area. You can get slightly more efficient solar panels, but it’s a few percentage points at most. You’re never going to be able to get away from the fundamental issue of needing to pave over country-sized areas of land to generate enough renewable power to fuel modern industrial civilizations. That’s a fundamental physical reality which is never going to change. It might be slightly cheaper to do that because solar panels have come down in cost, but it doesn’t change the fundamentals. No, I’m not really in a different place from where I was when I wrote Nuclear 2.0.
Robert Wiblin: Couldn’t we just stick all the solar panels in a desert somewhere where practically no one lives, and then put up high voltage lines to transmit them to cities? Can we get much mileage from that?
Mark Lynas: Yeah, but even deserts are ecosystems, and they’re wild areas. When I think it’s Ivanpah, that big solar plant in California in the Mojave Desert was being built, they were bulldozing cacti. They were pulling desert tortoises out of their burrows and sticking them in the back of pickups to be translocated elsewhere where they all died. There’s no such thing as an ecological free lunch, particularly when you’re talking about harvesting power over vast areas of the planet’s surface, which are currently still wild. That’s the opposite of a rewilding agenda, which is what I’m most enthusiastic about, where we need to let go of human impact over as much of the world’s land as we can do while still producing food. Why you’d want to bring energy into a land-use conflict when you’ve already got food in a land-use conflict, I can’t imagine.
And if Extinction Rebellion was to carry through its mandate properly, it would be pro-nuclear.
Robert Wiblin: My overall view is that I’m super sympathetic to nuclear power and what you’re saying, and I’d be really happy to see more plants getting built. It’s crazy to see plants getting shut down early on, and then replaced with coal power in some places. I guess a lot of the common objections that people have around safety and other things are pretty weak, but all that said, I’m not sure whether promoting nuclear power is a top low-hanging fruit way to reduce climate change, I guess for three reasons. Firstly, there’s this thing that solar is decreasing so much, and maybe I’m more optimistic than you that we can find some way to stick the solar panels someplace that people will accept. At least maybe that’s easier than getting nuclear built. I guess if solar cost decreases continue, then maybe it will just end up being cheaper as well?
Robert Wiblin: Then there’s also, I guess I should say Europe and the US just seem to have forgotten how to build things now. It’s hard to get a bridge built, let alone a nuclear power plant. I’d love that to change, but I guess I am not holding my breath, so maybe nuclear power has more of a future in Asia or something, rather than Europe or the United States. I guess also as you said, people just hate nuclear energy so much to such an irrational degree, that the problems just seem really severe. While I’d love that to change, I guess I’m not sure whether making all of these sensible arguments about why it’s actually a good option is going to be enough to get rid of people’s instinctive fear. Do you have any take on that?
Mark Lynas: There’s a lot there.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, sorry.
Mark Lynas: It comes down to are serious about having a plan to tackle climate change, which actually adds up and is physically possible? I’m putting that question to Greenpeace, to Extinction Rebellion, to you, to the Conservative Party, whatever. If it’s a renewables-only approach, then you’re not serious. It just isn’t conceivable to imagine the kind of materials for those. Yes, you can put all of the solar in hot deserts, but the transmission lines… You’ve got a transmission line, let’s say, between Algeria and Libya. Oh, Libya has just gone. Whoops. There’s energy security issues for that, just as there are with the modern-day oil industry, where we’ve got geopolitical, obviously, conflicts resulting from our dependence on Middle Eastern oil. So yes, you could probably design an outcome where you’ve got most of the Arabian peninsula covered in solar panels, but electricity to the high consuming markets is very difficult, even with high voltage DC, not to mention the security risks of that.
Mark Lynas: Perhaps a better option is for hydrogen production, so to produce synthetic liquid pills using the sort of stranded asset of hot deserts. I know people who are working on that, and I think it’s certainly conceivable that that could be a significant part of the approach. When I try and be physically realistic about the renewables issue, it’s not to say we shouldn’t do renewables. I’m currently involved in launching a campaign called ‘Nuclear for net zero’. I don’t know whether it’s going to happen or not, but we’re just conceiving it at the moment. I’m quite happy to say, “Okay, let’s have in the UK solar PV equivalent to 10 times Hinkley’s fee, so let’s build your one and a half Wales’ of solar. I don’t know quite where you’re going to put it. Actually, it’s not that much. It’s only about two Surreys, actually. Let’s just sacrifice a couple of home counties with solar, by all means, but we’ll still need even a few, well, probably 40 or 50 gigawatts of nuclear as well, and if you’ve got offshore wind, and if you’re going to produce significant amounts of hydrogen in the UK too.
Mark Lynas: So the only way you can get around that is to say, “No, no. Of course we don’t want any solar in… Sorry, we’re going to have to put it all in Algeria”, in which case you’ve somehow got to either move the electricity, or I’m not quite sure how else you’re proposing to do it. Is that more believable than a future where you basically just persuade people to be a little bit less hysterical about nuclear, and get that back into the mix as a much more scalable and hopefully more cost-effective approach? Because, by the way, even with the reduction in solar costs, it’s much more expensive to do it just with solar and wind, just because of the materials you need. Imagine all the steel and silicone and all the rare-earths and everything, all of the different metals that you need to cover over the Arabian peninsula in solar panels. It’s immense. It’s probably many times the scale at which this material flows currently exists for all of the world’s industry.
If it’s a renewables-only approach, then you’re not serious. It just isn’t conceivable to imagine the kind of materials for those.
Arden Koehler: All right. Let’s move on from nuclear power to discuss other promising ways people can help to reduce climate change. What are a few other policy or technology options that you think have the greatest potential to avoid a climate disaster?
Mark Lynas: There aren’t any.
Arden Koehler: So it’s just nuclear?
Mark Lynas: Yep.
Arden Koehler: Okay.
Mark Lynas: That’s why I care. I don’t have a particular strange fetish for reactors.
Arden Koehler: Well, I guess people talk about a carbon tax or these kinds of things. Do you think any of those are especially promising?
Mark Lynas: Those are policy levers that have to drive a technological change. What’s the technology? Ultimately, you come back to the same question.
Arden Koehler: Okay.
Robert Wiblin: You don’t think it would be… Well, I suppose I would think solar R&D, even if you think it can’t go all the way, is helpful as well. Maybe battery technology can help? It just lowers the overall cost of having stable electricity from renewables. Is there anything else on the energy side that excites you?
Mark Lynas: Well, when I said we could pave over the whole of Surrey with solar, that’s assuming that you’ve dealt with intermittency, but that’s just looking at your kilowatt-hours per year, and not how you keep your lights on at night. So batteries, that’s not an issue at all. There’s nothing else. Fusion? Good luck with that. Biofuels? No, that destroys more of the planetary ecosystem.
Arden Koehler: I guess another type of intervention would be negative emissions technologies, so carbon capture and storage, for instance. How optimistic are you about that for making a big difference?
Mark Lynas: You mean carbon capture and storage from burning fossil fuels? What carbon are you capturing and storing here?
Arden Koehler: I’m imagining the atmosphere, but would be curious about the others too.
Mark Lynas: Well, in air capture, your thermodynamic challenges for that are you have to put a huge lot of energy into that process. You’ve got to somehow chemically strip CO2 out of the atmosphere where its current concentration is 400 parts per million, so that’s 0.04%. I can never get the orders of magnitude right… But very diffuse. Then you’ve got to concentrate it, liquefy it, and pump it underground in big pipes in appropriate places, so the scale of that challenge, if you think about it conceptually, is like doing the opposite to what the oil and gas industry has done times two, because it’s coal as well, but decades.
We need enthusiasts. We need engineers. We need innovators. We need activists. We need everybody who’s interested in this issue to be out there and talk to their friends about it.
Mark Lynas: And you think about the size of all of those pipes, and all of those drilling rigs, and all of the rest of it. It’s not going to happen. You’d have to put into that much more energy than was liberated in the process of drilling and burning that oil and gas to start with, obviously because of thermodynamics. It’s like trying to make a wood fire out of ash, right: you’re at the lowest state of entropy. No, it’s not going to happen. No, it’s not scalable. And no, it shouldn’t be a major part of our conversation.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I’m with you on that. I guess also, in the meantime, we’ve been burning coal and messing things up, and producing all the air pollution, all the other downsides of coal. It just seems terrible on multiple different grounds.
Mark Lynas: Why would you do it when you’ve still got point sources of emissions, which have really been concentrated CO2 by the millions of tar from single chimneys? In what way does it ever make sense to try and then capture it from the air? It’s 400 parts per million concentration. So you’ve got this strange parallel conversation going on. For me, it’s a kind of psychological denialism, imagining that in some kind of future we get to be inventing magic that can reverse the damage that we’re currently doing every single day.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Even magic can’t change the laws of thermodynamics. What about grabbing it from the chimneys of the coal plants? Is there anything to be done there?
Mark Lynas: Well, that’s the methadone option to your heroin addiction.
Arden Koehler: It sounds like an improvement.
Mark Lynas: Maybe. But you’re still an addict, and you still flop around looking gray. Obviously, you can carry on burning coal, and you can put the already concentrated CO2 underground, and that’s being done on a small scale in some places. Technically that’s manageable. You get a significant energy penalty from doing it, and to be honest, the best way to keep carbon in the ground is to leave the carbon where it currently is in geological reservoirs of oil and gas, so it doesn’t make any sense to do that in my view on that, as a large scale approach. We just don’t need to. We’ve got alternatives. We don’t need to burn that coal to start with, and it’s better off being solid, black, a few hundred meters down.
Robert Wiblin: Okay. Given that, maybe we should talk more about nuclear?
Mark Lynas: Yeah. I told you. You end up with nowhere else to go, which is the process I went through in about 2005.
Why Mark changed his mind about nuclear energy
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. That’s interesting. So tell us a little bit about your evolution from being anti-nuclear to pro-nuclear. How did that happen, and how difficult was it psychologically?
Mark Lynas: Well, I was never anti-nuclear in a mobilized sense in the way that I was anti-GMO, where I was doing actions and destroying crops, and things like that. I was never an anti-nuclear activist in the sense… Anything more than the fact I felt myself to be an environmentalist, and therefore I thought nuclear power was bad because all environmentalists do. That was really the extent to which I thought about it. It’s the generation before me. The kind of high watermark of the anti-nuclear movement was in the 1970s, China syndrome type of era, Jane Fonda, that kind of stuff. I came of age really as an environmentalist in the late, well, the early ’90s, really. That had happened, but it had become, for want of a better way of putting it, part of the DNA of environmentalism was the anti-nuclear belief. I just grew up with it, and never thought to question it.
Arden Koehler: Until you did, though, I suppose, right? What was that transition like?
Mark Lynas: It was very difficult. Yeah, I was at an energy conference, I think, where someone from the nuclear industry just said about, I think it was 15% of the UK’s power at that point… I didn’t even know. It actually hadn’t really occurred to me the extent to which we were already dependent on nuclear for, well, at that point, the majority of our carbon-free power. In the first stage I was like, “Okay, you don’t want to switch it off like they’re doing in Germany”. You switch off the nuclear, then you go the opposite direction from where you need to be to reduce emissions. Once you believe in the climate emergency, you just have to rethink opposition to nuclear. Not doing so is, well, completely irrational.
Robert Wiblin: Have you had much success persuading people? Is there any kind of green shoots of people reassessing this?
Mark Lynas: You would be surprised as to how many people deep down–
Robert Wiblin: Think it’s fine.
Mark Lynas: Yeah, actually understand. It’s a bit like most people are still in the closet. This is why I’m focused now on helping build a movement, because we need to be out and proud. We need to say this is what we think, these are the reasons why we think it, and please join us rather than… I know people in Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and all of these mainstream groups who know perfectly well that you’ve got to have nuclear as a major part of the mix to solve climate change, but they would be sacked if they said so, so they just keep a lid on it. I don’t think having to deny evidence is the right place for environmentalism to be, so that irritates me as well as it being in the way of solving climate change, which is the main point of this whole exercise.
Robert Wiblin: Are there any recent innovations in nuclear energy, or improvements on light-water reactors of the past, or forthcoming potential innovations that you could talk about that might get people more excited about it?
Mark Lynas: Yeah. I really like some of the molten salt reactor designs. It just makes more sense to have your fuel liquid rather than having your fuel solid and trying to stop it from turning to liquid, which happens in the conventional light-water reactor where meltdown is the most fearful thing. If your fuel’s already liquid, and it’s mixed with salts, and that’s where the fission’s taking place, that just makes a lot more sense. It also makes more sense not to use water as your coolant, because then you’ve got to have a pressurized environment. If you’re going to have water at 300 degrees centigrade, then the whole system has to be at very high pressure. And then if everything goes wrong, it’s very difficult to get in there and do anything, because whatever’s inside is trying to get out the whole time.
Mark Lynas: And so just by the design of the thing, you’ve got a more difficult safety environment if you’ve got pressurized water at 300 degrees and you have a loss of pressure or loss of power or anything like that. So light-water reactor design, which we were left within the ’40s for submarines pretty much and then became the standard for civil nuclear power, isn’t at all the best. If you’re going back to first principles, you would not design a nuclear fission reactor that way. And I quite like also the fast breeder aspect of thorium in that you’re breeding more fuel into existence. And by the way, there’s enough thorium to run the planet, even at US standards of living for like 10,000 years. Really is not a limited resource in a fuel sense.
Mark Lynas: And the designs have this very clever freeze plug thing where let me get this right, you have to blow very cold helium on it, and that keeps the salts frozen at the bottom. So for some reason you get a loss of power, that stops happening and it thaws out, and then all of the fissioning molten salts drain into all of these very separated tanks, which are passively cooled. And there’s nothing you can do actually to make it blow up, even if you were to try. Whether that would persuade people who are fearful of the whole concept of radioactivity and the atom, I don’t know. Possibly not. But I would quite like to have reactors out there that were passively safe. I think it’s just a better prospect.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. This has really inspired me to go and really investigate these things more properly because how nuclear power actually works and what the possible advances are has always been a bit of a blur to me. People talk about them, but I don’t really have an ontology in my mind of the different choices that we potentially have to make. Are there any sources that you can recommend if someone really wants to get up to speed on where we are with nuclear energy today, what the problems are, and what the possible solutions are? Where might they go?
Mark Lynas: Oh, that’s a good question. And so some of these new companies actually have good videos and just explain how the whole thing works. But there is this sort of debate between the light-water reactor proponents and the advanced design crowd, the fast breeder crowd. But I think ultimately we have to go in that direction. There’s not that much uranium-235 out there. It makes sense to use this stuff a bit more productively.
Robert Wiblin: Sorry. Explain that.
Mark Lynas: So natural uranium in the ground, as an ore, which you obviously purify to make into nuclear fuel, is a natural concentration of uranium isotope 235, and only about 0.5%. The rest of it’s uranium-238. And having those extra neutrons means that uranium-238 isn’t fissionable. So only uranium-235. So this is what the Iranians are doing with their centrifuges, is to try and increase the proportion of uranium-235 so that you can get to where you need to be to build a bomb, where you need over 80% uranium-235. So you get it from 0.5% to 80%. You do that through centrifuges which are spinning gas containing uranium, so the heavier stuff goes to the outside and the lighter stuff goes in the inside. And you do that through several thousand centrifuges: you can gradually increase the proportion. So uranium-235 is the fissionable isotope, uranium-238 is non-fissionable, but comprises 99.9% of what’s out there.
Mark Lynas: So you have to enrich uranium, which is doable, but then you’ve obviously got the issues with controlling proliferation risk and stuff like that because it’s the same stuff. But you only need it to be like 2% enriched to make nuclear fuel, whereas you need 80% too much to make nuclear bombs. So there’s enough difference between them that it’s very easy actually to figure out when a country, some rogue state is trying to do that. The only complication is plutonium here. So in a reactor, uranium-238 will capture a neutron and transmute to plutonium-239, which is also fissionable and which is also a component for nuclear weapons.
Mark Lynas: So I think the Trinity bomb or the Hiroshima bomb in 1945, one of those was plutonium; one of those was a uranium weapon. So actually a lot of the fission that goes on within any nuclear reactor is uranium-238, which is turned to plutonium-239. Potentially, if you get that out and find a way to purify it and concentrate it, you could then have a proliferation risk that a weapon could be created. So this is one of the objections that people sometimes raise. But actually, if you can turn uranium-238 into plutonium, then again, you’ve got pretty much inexhaustible fuel supplies. So to my mind, that’s a reason to be more enthusiastic about nuclear than less, because you can run a highly energy consumptive, developed civilization for centuries, millennia using this sort of fuel without destroying the climate.
Arden Koehler: Why are you less worried than some other people about the proliferation concerns?
Mark Lynas: You just have to keep control of the fuel cycle. This is what pretty much already happens. Every country doesn’t make its own nuclear fuel. It’s traded stuff because it’s quite specialist, requires a lot of difficult, complex equipment to make. So you have a few places which make it, and then oftentimes they take back the waste and maybe process it or whatever. But either way, the whole fuel cycle is safeguarded within the internationally regulated scenario. That’s what part of what the IAEA exists to do.
Robert Wiblin: If there are listeners out there who are listening to this, and they read your book, and they’re like, “Yeah, nuclear is the way to go”, what opportunities are there for them to make a difference? Do we need advocates or people to go into engineering or business? What can we push on here?
Mark Lynas: We need all of those. We need enthusiasts. We need engineers. We need innovators. We need activists. We need everybody who’s interested in this issue to be out there and talk to their friends about it. You remember this is a cultural awareness shift that we need more than anything. Yes, the engineering challenges need to be addressed too. But imagine if there was like 80% of people were enthusiastic about nuclear, and we were putting a few billion into research, and everyone was supportive. It’s a bit like making a COVID vaccine. It would be this big project that everyone would be excited to be involved in. Imagine how different that is from the current situation where it’s this kind of hideous thing.
Robert Wiblin: Almost taboo.
Mark Lynas: Yeah. It’s really expensive, but we’ve got to do it, because whatever.
Arden Koehler: So does that mean that we may especially need people doing advocacy? And if so, are there particular types of advocacy you would guess are especially effective for persuading the people who need to be persuaded?
You switch off the nuclear, then you go the opposite direction from where you need to be to reduce emissions.
Mark Lynas: Yeah, we need a pro-nuclear Extinction Rebellion. And if Extinction Rebellion was to carry through its mandate properly, it would be pro-nuclear. It’s one thing to put pink boats into the center of London and say, “We’re in a climate emergency”, but then people say to you, “Well, all right. What do we do about it?” They say, “Well, we don’t do solutions”.
Robert Wiblin: Are there any companies, or organizations, or maybe university research projects that you’d be really excited for people to go and join?
Mark Lynas: I think actually it’s more of a philosophy. So I would hesitantly call myself an ecomodernist. We wrote a manifesto a few years ago to try and codify this. It’s this evidence-based environmental movement to try and bring scientific rationalism into the green scene and to be progressive because a lot of environmentalism actually isn’t progressive. It’s very conservative, even reactionary. It’s about going backward and keeping people poor. They don’t say it in that sense, but pretty much it is.
Arden Koehler: Or they don’t care enough about those side effects.
Do either of you know about the exciting prospects for ammonia?
Mark Lynas: Well, actually I think it’s a defined outcome.
Arden Koehler: Really?
Mark Lynas: Yeah. If you look at the GMO stuff, they don’t want farmers in Africa to drive tractors and use fertilizer. They want them to remain in subsistence, cultivating crops by hand, because they consider that morally desirable. That’s the whole idea behind the organic movement, really, is to try and reduce the amount of technology that’s used in agriculture. Why you do that in a very low tech subsistence region with very low productivity and the constant risk of food insecurity, it isn’t really fair if you’re a well off, rich, well-fed person and then try and externalize that into Africa. But that’s pretty much where all of the engineers and the entire aid budgets have gone.
Arden Koehler: Yeah. Go on. Sorry.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, Arden always wants to be really charitable. Maybe we can just say there’s some people who feel this way and there’s some people who don’t. There’s a range of views. Given what an uphill battle nuclear has in Europe and the US, are there other countries where maybe advocacy will be even more useful? Maybe in China, people are already more positive about it, or maybe there’s developing countries that need more energy where people are more open to the idea of building nuclear power plants, and that’s where we could really see a renaissance take off.
Mark Lynas: Yeah. That’s a great question. Maybe Indonesia, India, countries which are relatively open, but which have a huge need for clean energy. So yeah. But there isn’t a pro-nuclear movement. There’s no pro-nuclear grassroots movement anywhere in the world. There are one or two successes like in Finland, for example, the ecomodernists. It’s literally just half a dozen people to start with, but they’ve got an MP elected now who’s a member of the Green Party but has an ecomodernist philosophy. And they’ve got support from all of the different political parties. And Greenpeace has gone quiet on nuclear at least. So you’re at the stage now where it’s flipped over and being pro-nuclear is sort of the sensible position to have in Finland. Now let’s try and get there in the rest of the world.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. One thing you talked about in the book is modular designs, which might allow us to build plants more quickly, on time, and at a lower cost. Do you mind talking about that for a second?
Mark Lynas: Yeah. No, fire away. It’s a bit like how you make ships. And so there’s some people I’ve been working with who actually look at, “Are there ways to make modular reactors in shipyards?” essentially, where you’re building very large pieces of incredibly complex engineering and steel and it’s all put together in the space of a few months. And they roll off a production line, and you’ve got a very highly skilled workforce with all the modern robotics and everything right there in one place ready to produce them. Because even if you do it with nuclear, it doesn’t make it easy. The scale is still immense. Again, just to throw a number out there, if you were to replace our current global oil consumption with nuclear-generated hydrogen, you’d need the equivalent of the entire nuclear fleet produced every single year, which is like 400 and something gigawatts. So are you really going to design and build 400 light-water reactors every single year? I don’t think so. You’re going to have to have a completely transformed approach to the whole production chain, all of the manufacturing process.
Robert Wiblin: What are the challenges there? Or do you think it’s just something, if we put in the effort, we’ll figure out a way of making these smaller reactors in a more systematic way?
Mark Lynas: It’s not only been… Designs are out there. It’s got much further than that, where this Korean shipyard are already giving quotes to nuclear engineering companies for how much it’ll cost to do this. But you need the first one to be built, obviously, before you can start thinking about the next several hundred.
Robert Wiblin: Actually, are there any opportunities for donation or investment here? People often ask me, what for-profit stuff can I invest in, or what socially responsible investing can I do that would improve the world? And often I don’t have a lot to say to them, but maybe this is something I’ve overlooked.
Mark Lynas: Yeah. Well, go and put some money into ThorCon. I think they only need a few hundred million to get the first prototype, which is peanuts really. And there’s a big jump between a paper reactor, as they say, and one which actually is working and has been through all of the tests, been fully licensed, and is scalable in that sense. So that’s the gulf that needs to be jumped with the advanced designs.
Any Other Business
Robert Wiblin: I know you’ve got to run, so we should probably wrap up. I think maybe a final question is, you think most people are wrong about nuclear or that they’re too worried about nuclear, too worried about GMOs from a safety point of view. What other things are people wrong about? Do you have any other heterodox views?
Mark Lynas: They shouldn’t be heterodox, because that’s where the scientific consensus is.
Robert Wiblin: Completely, yeah.
Mark Lynas: No, yeah. So I’m not a contrarian in that sense.
Robert Wiblin: No, no.
How do you do that without destroying the rest of the world’s ecology, as there’s not really any other way of doing it than nuclear?
Mark Lynas: I’m pro-vaccine. A lot of it comes down to conspiracy theories, really. To be a climate skeptic, you really have to believe that thousands of climate scientists have collaborated in a conspiracy to lie to us for some reason about climate physics. The same goes for vaccines. It comes down to a conspiracy theory about big-pharma and Bill Gates, and that they’re somehow poisoned with toxic mercury or whatever it happens to be. But that still comes back down to the same thing. Why do people not take in evidence? Why do people believe in conspiracy theories? It’s because they are simple narratives and politicized explanations which kind of lend to distrust of authority, which is valid in many contexts, but not when it results in large scale public behavior which is injurious to the commonality of us all.
Arden Koehler: I’d be curious if there was another sort of technology or something that you think is really underappreciated.
Mark Lynas: Yeah, maybe it’ll be ammonia. Ammonia is interesting stuff.
Arden Koehler: What do you mean?
Mark Lynas: Well, the problem with hydrogen in a hydrogen economy is that it’s very difficult to move around. You have to cool it to 20 degrees kelvin, so 20 degrees above absolute zero to be able to get it liquefied, obviously under very high pressure. So it’s a very energy-intensive and difficult thing to do to move large amounts of liquid hydrogen around. So you need to carry hydrogen in a molecular bond. Ammonia’s very good at that. Ammonia’s NH3. So you take nitrogen, which is all around us in the atmosphere, combined with hydrogen: bang, you’ve got a fuel which is liquid almost at ambient pressure and temperature. It has to be a bit cooler, but very easy to do. And you can more or less burn ammonia in diesel engines, or in fuel cells, or whatever. Do either of you know about the exciting prospects for ammonia?
Arden Koehler: I had never heard of it.
Robert Wiblin: No, never heard of it.
Arden Koehler: Which is a good sign maybe our audience wouldn’t have either.
Robert Wiblin: All right. Well, on that positive note, hopefully, there are lots of other technologies there that we can find out about that will improve things. And our guest today has been Mark Lynas. Thanks so much for coming on the 80,000 Hours Podcast, Mark.
Mark Lynas: It’s been my pleasure. The three hours have simply flown by.
Just a reminder: as part of our efforts to improve our climate change content, earlier this year Arden made a medium-sized update to our problem profile on the website, adding more discussion of long-range climate forecasts and the most extreme risks.
You can find that at 80000hours.org/problem-profiles/climate-change/ or the link in the show notes.
The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced by Keiran Harris.
Audio mastering by Ben Cordell.
Full transcripts are available on our site and made by Zakee Ulhaq.
Thanks for joining, talk to you again soon.