books climate change energy technology

A Bright Future, by Joshua Goldstein and Staffan Qvist

Last week the government announced its Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution, and point number three is “delivering new and advanced nuclear power”. Since it’s happening, it’s a good time to review the whole issue of nuclear power in an age of climate change, and this book is a useful place to start: A Bright Future: How some countries have solved climate change and the rest can follow.

Not that you’d know from the title that this is a book entirely about nuclear power. Nor from the back cover blurb, or the first chapter. Then in chapter two we get a history of how “Sweden built a series of power plants using a new energy source called karnkraft”. They continue to use the word karnkraft, deliberately avoiding the term ‘nuclear power’ for as long as possible in what is clearly a deliberate decision to reset the associations readers make with the technology. This felt like a bit of a gimmick at first, though now that I’ve finished the book I think it’s rather smart.

Resetting the world’s view of nuclear power is important, because nuclear power is potentially low carbon. If the priority is to decarbonise our power systems, then nuclear can make a contribution at a significant scale.

But, it is contentious. For many people it is overpriced and dangerous, both in its operation and in its association with nuclear weapons, and there are unresolved issues around waste. The book deals with all of these concerns, but its most powerful section is when it asks ‘compared to what?’ – because “carbon free nuclear power is vastly safer than today’s dominant energy source, coal.”

This is a really important point. “coal kills at least a million people every year worldwide” say the authors, “mostly through particulate emissions that give people cancer and other diseases.”

The book explores what has happened in Germany, where fear of nuclear power drove the country to close down its nuclear power stations. New renewable energy displaced nuclear rather than coal, leaving emissions the same. If there is one lesson to draw from the book, this would be the most important: “as we build out renewable, we absolutely must use them to replace fossil fuels, not carbon-free nuclear power.”

Of course, they want to go further than that. They draw lessons from Sweden’s extensive use of nuclear power and apply it to China, India, Russia and elsewhere, showing how a rapid build-out of new nuclear power could reduce emissions in different contexts. For Britain, the lessons that jumped out to me are around economics. In my view, Britain has mishandled its turn back towards nuclear power. It’s not necessarily a bad idea, just done badly. Exhibit number one is that South Korea builds nuclear power stations for a quarter of the price we’re paying for Hinkley Point C.

Unfortunately the book does rather overstate its case. The back cover blurb calls it “the first book to offer a proven, fast, inexpensive, practical way to cut greenhouse gas emissions and prevent catastrophic climate change.” Even if we put aside the ‘fast’ and ‘inexpensive’ bit for a moment, that’s an odd claim to make when there are plenty of other books advocating nuclear power as a response to climate change. In his foreword, which I suggest readers skip entirely, Steven Pinker makes the ridiculous claim that this is “the first book on dealing with climate change that is grounded in reality.”

The superiority complex of nuclear advocates is one thing, but I did find the book potentially misleading on renewable energy in places. For example, it says that “in the twenty first century, the fastest growing energy source in the world is coal”. The inclusion of ‘in the 21st century’ makes that technically true, but it should still say ‘has been’ or ‘was’ coal – not ‘is’. Right now renewables are the fastest growing sector and that’s been the case for about five years.

The book also claims that for poorer countries coal will be the cheapest and fastest way to expand electricity generation, which is not the case. In many places, solar or wind are cheaper and are the default option. Again, that has become true in the last few years, but it has been widely predicted and the book doesn’t reflect the turning point that we find ourselves in as renewable energy reaches grid parity.

Finally, I have a problem with the title and the repeated assertion that “some countries have solved climate change” – namely Sweden, France, and a handful of other places that have prioritised nuclear power. Swedish emissions per capita still come in at around 5 tonnes per person, over twice the level we need to reach for long term sustainability. Good progress for sure, but it’s premature to declare that all the world can live like Sweden.

Despite these misgivings, A Bright Future is still well worth reading because it tackles a topic that is so often skipped over to avoid a perceived difficult conversation. It’s written by an International Relations expert and a Swedish nuclear engineer, and they bring a valuable perspective, even if it’s not the final word on climate change that some might think it is.

6 comments

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