“Sustainable Development” is a phrase with two distinct meanings.
When people trained in Economics think about what “Sustainable Development” means, they normally assume that Nature’s continuing bounty will sustain our development path. That the pyramid of wealth, the wealth accrual machine and monetary incentives will bring more and more people and material resources into optimal production, and there will be no end to the development of the enrichment of all peoples and the quality of their habitat. Growth is good, for it brings prosperity to all, health, wealth, education, freedom from want and a top-notch built environment.
When people trained in Ecology think about what “Sustainable Development” means, they know that there are limits to how much the human race can extract from the Earth, both in terms of mining the crust and the biological productivity caused by photosynthesis. For them, the sustainable part is the most important – how the whole “development” thing can be kept in motion, given the stress on the environment. Nature’s bounty has some clear limits for ecological thinkers, including the Earth’s carrying capacity, the risks of damages from Climate Change, and the peaks in the production of the extractive industries, such as Uranium, Oil, Coal and Natural Gas.
This week I was trying to explain why Wind Power is effectively free Energy. Yes, you have to spend out in terms of Money, Carbon Emissions and Energy to erect Wind Turbines, but the servicing of the machines is not a major cost. Over the lifetime of a Wind Turbine, it pays back in all three values of concern : Money, Carbon Emissions and Energy. You get back more than you put in, qualifying it as a true investment, as it has a clear return. At the end of the lifecycle of a Wind Turbine, practically all the material resources in its construction can be re-used, reducing the costs of erecting a new Wind Turbine. Only a small part of the return on investment in the original Wind Turbine is needed to fund the building of the next one. Plus, importantly, you don’t pay for the fuel. And so, after the initial investment, Wind Power is effectively free.
Compare and contrast to Nuclear Power. It is contestible if Nuclear Power plants pay back in any of the three indicators : Money, Carbon and Energy. And at the end of the lifetime of a Nuclear reactor, the equipment and most of the radioactive waste cannot be re-used, turned into new Nuclear Power. So, Nuclear Power is effectively a dead-end on spending. Nuclear Power is not an investment, as it does not offer a return for money spent. In fact, it wastes environments, materials and expenditure – environments where the Uranium is mined, and where the Uranium is processed and “burned” and disposed of. With Nuclear Power you continue to have to find solid, weighty investment to build the next generation of plant, and you have to continue to purchase the fuel.
New Nuclear Power in the United Kingdom will provide a certain amount of economic stimulus, as it will create employment and work contracts and a hive of activity. This production would be accounted as “sustaining” “development” of the Economy.
But Nuclear Power in the United Kingdom would, at best, be a stop-gap on the road to fully Renewable Energy. It will be an expensive, one-time-only use of funds, and desecrate environments even barring radioactive leaks or explosions during its use.
A new fleet of Nuclear Power plants in the United Kingdom is a wasteful, unsustainable proposal, and should be buried, along with the last 50 years of radioactive waste we haven’t dealt with yet.