I come a little late to the party, so to speak, but I recently picked up and am now a little more than halfway through James Lovelock’s The Revenge of Gaia, the fourth in his series of books developing the Gaia Hypothesis, now Theory, he and a small group of collaborators first put forth widely back in 1972.
Lovelock and colleagues’ work to develop the Gaia Theory and earth systems science has proven to be seminal in several ways, and hence I figure these books must have a place on any required reading list to do with climate change, energy and natural resources development and management, as well as providing well worthwhile insight and inside commentary on the state of scientific research and the how scientific community works today.
The idea of Gaia – consisting of the biosphere, lithosphere and atmosphere– as being a “living” entity in terms of its natural ability to organize and regulate our world’s chemical, physical and biological activities, inputs and outputs so as to make the planet amenable to life has proven to be an iconic and elementally attractive way of viewing the planet for large numbers of lay persons as well as scientists–one that harkens back to our ancestral concepts of Nature as a mother goddess.
Lovelock Goes Nuclear
Gradually gaining wider acceptance in the scientific community over the past few decades, the fundamental principles propounded in the Gaia Hypothesis and subsequent work have been a catalyst for and instrumental to the work being done by the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change. Like many such powerful concepts, they grow beyond the ownership of those who originated them, however, and are often taken in many different directions, some of which run counter to or in direct opposition to the authors’ own views and intentions.
Lovelock, for instance, remains a staunch supporter of nuclear power, which I imagine makes him persona non grata to many environmental organizations, and leads to disparaging criticism as well as conveniently ignoring his views on the issue. I grew up in the cultural milieu Lovelock describes that produced in many, including myself, an elemental fear and dread of nuclear power – a combination of the Cold War threat of nuclear devastation and the anti-establishment youth culture that grew out of the civil rights and Vietnam War era in the US.
Now a good bit older and hopefully more prone to dispassionate reflection, I am more likely to consider and admit my ignorance on any of a variety of subjects and then seek out good sources of information to remedy this as opposed to the much simpler, more convenient and more often than not, emotionally driven option of forming a hasty and ill-formed opinion. Plus, I figure that the problems of environmental degradation and climate change associated with our fast-growing population and the development of modern consumer-driven societies is just too big and too substantial to merit anything less.
As I also cover mineral and energy resources for other online publications, I am aware of the meteoric rise in the market price of processed uranium ore, or yellowcake, over the past few years and the “nuclear renaissance” that some pundits say may soon come to pass. Feeling that it was my obligation as a journalist to recognize and transcend my own almost innate cultural biases and seek out the truth of the matter to the best of my ability, I felt that I needed to re-examine the ingrained, primarily emotionally driven beliefs that the risks of using nuclear power, and safely disposing of nuclear waste, are simply too great.
Unexpectedly, Gaia’s Revenge is helping me do just that. And I have to say that when it comes to nuclear power, which he considers our only safe bet when it comes to cutting back carbon dioxide emissions sufficiently to lessen the effects of the global “hot age” that he sees inexorably approaching, Lovelock has set me thinking.
Following are a few of what so far have struck me as among the most valuable and thought provoking quotes from Gaia’s Revenge regarding nuclear power, at least through page 133 of 204:
- A moment’s thought on the power densities of carbon fuels compared with nuclear fuels explains why the nuclear industry is small. To produce the same amount of electricity requires a million times more oil or gas than it does uranium. As a consequence, the nuclear industry can hardly afford pro-nuclear demonstrations and advertisements, and you rarely ever hear counter-arguments.
- An outstanding advantage of nuclear over fossil fuel energy I show easy it is to deal with the waste it produces. Burning fossil fuels produces 27,000 million tons of carbon dioxide yearly, enough, as I mentioned earlier, to make, if solidified, a mountain nearly one mile high and with a base 12 miles in circumference. The same quantity of energy produced from nuclear fission reactions would generate two million times less waste, and it would occupy a 16-meter cube.
- The carbon dioxide waste is invisible but so deadly that its emissions go unchecked it will kill nearly everyone. The nuclear waste buried in pits at the production sites is no threat to Gaia and dangerous only to those foolish enough to expose themselves to its radiation.
- …I also knew that that the natural world would welcome nuclear waste as the perfect guardian against greedy developers, and whatever slight harm it might represent was a small price to pay. One of the striking things about places heavily contaminated by radioactive nuclides is the richness of their wildlife. This is true of the land around Chernobyl, the bomb test sites of the Pacific, and areas near the United States’ Savannah River nuclear weapons plant of the Second World War. Wild plants and animals do not perceive radiation as dangerous, and any slight reduction it may cause in their lifespans is far less a hazard than is the presence of people and their pets.
The fact that a scientist of Lovelock’s stature and staunch independence publicly offered to store the waste from one nuclear power plant on his own small plot of land in England certainly grabbed my attention and has given me food for thought and further consideration.
In Gaia’s Revenge, he states, “But it is not enough to use this as an argument favouring a wider use of nuclear energy, because the public belief in the harmfulness of nuclear power is too strong to break by direct argument. Instead, I have offered in public to accept all of the high-level waste produced in a year from a nuclear power station for deposit on my small plot of land; it would occupy a space about a cubic metre in size and fit safely in a concrete pit, and I would use the heat from its decaying radioactive elements to heat my home. It would be a waste not to use it. More important, it would be no danger to me, my family or the wildlife.”