Is nuclear power key to biodiversity?

The discussion surrounding the future of our energy supply tends to focus on carbon emissions. This is logical and probably the right way to look at things, given that climate change caused by those carbon emissions is the backdrop for virtually every other environmental (and geopolitical, and health, and economic, and so on) issue we will confront in the coming decades.

A new paper, though, examined the potential future energy sources based on their effects on biodiversity. “For the least direct harm to biodiversity, the best energy options are those that use the least amount of land and fresh water, minimize pollution, restrict habitat fragmentation, and have a low risk of accidents that have large and lasting regional impacts on natural areas,” wrote authors Barry Brook and Corey Bradshaw, both of the University of Adelaide in Australia. Based on reviews of varying scenarios of energy usage in the future, they found that nuclear power is among the best possible options.

Nuclear, depending on who you ask, is either lying dead by the side of the road as an option or is set to explode. Thanks in large part to a spate of nuclear reactor plans in China, the world’s total capacity will certainly expand, but the pace will slow as countries like Germany begin to phase out the power source in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. So why does nuclear do so well from a biodiversity perspective?

Brook and Bradshaw reviewed three distinct “storylines” for the future of energy, and ranked seven major electricity generation sources based on seven criteria, from greenhouse gas emissions to land use to waste produced. A lower score was better. For example, hydroelectric power ranked 1 for greenhouse gas emissions (including life-cycle emissions, meaning mining of material, production of plants or facilities, and so on), and coal ranked 7 for—well, for a lot of a things, including emissions, safety, and solid waste.

While wind power and, interestingly, natural gas scored well, nuclear power came in with the lowest weighted rank, meaning the best option for sustainability and impact on biodiversity. The authors acknowledge that nuclear faces a tough crowd in terms of its environmental impact, though they argue some of the bad rap that nuclear gets is not deserved. And if we really want to design a future with the best possible sustainability and biodiversity picture, a very difficult and honest accounting is required.

“Conservation professionals should be asking themselves what minimum criteria should be met for the choice of global energy supply in terms of biodiversity persistence,” the authors wrote—in other words, how many species are we willing to lose? “Can we afford to play Russian roulette with biodiversity because of preconceived notions and ideals?”

If we can ignore the Fukushimas and Chernobyls, the uranium mining near the Grand Canyon, (and to be clear we shouldn’t ignore them, just place them in better context, perhaps), nuclear power’s attraction when it comes to minimizing impact on the wilds of the world is fairly obvious. The authors noted that the average person living in a developed nation will use a total amount of energy over his/her lifetime equivalent that stored within one golf-ball-sized lump of uranium. Check out the chart below to see how that measures up to other power sources.

“At the very least,” Brook and Bradshaw conclude, “nuclear power needs to be considered seriously alongside renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar power, in any robust sustainable energy mix for the future.” – Dave Levitan | December 16, 2014

nuclear_biodiversity2

Source: Brook BW and Bradshaw CJA (2014). Key role for nuclear energy in global biodiversity conservation, Conservation Biology. DOI: 10.1111/cobi.12433
Images: Shutterstock, jaroslava V; Brook and Bradshaw, Conservation Biology

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