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Science, the greens and the environment.

THE leaflets distributed by the Green Party during the recent election have drawn attention once more to a set of beliefs about the present dangers to our environment and the policies needed to avert them. Essentially the same policies are advocated by many bodies concerned with environmental matters. In a sense we are all green now. Few would dispute that we should preserve the beauties of the countryside and ensure clean, unpolluted air. The difficulties begin when we start to think what we can do about it. Immediately there arise conflicts of interests: we do not like motorways and traffic fumes, but we want to keep our own cars. We do not like power stations and power lines, but we want electricity. Unfortunately, unspoilt countryside and clean air cost money, and how much are we prepared to pay?

The environmental organisations have no doubts about what has to be done. We must improve energy efficiency and reduce energy demand. We must develop the renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power and reduce our dependence on the polluting fossil fuels. Since this will not happen of its own accord, there must be subsidies for the one and carbon taxes for the other. Finally, all nuclear power stations must be shut down. This mixture has great emotional appeal, and indeed contains much that is sensible and desirable. It hides, however, a series of complex problems that need to be seriously studied and debated. Its unthinking application would certainly lead to disaster.

The basic trouble is that it is all on the level of hopes and desires, with no detailed figures of costs to separate what is practicable from what is not. The unwary reader might assume that this has all been done behind the scenes, and that we are just given the essentials of the needed policies. Unfortunately, as far as I have been able to discover, this has not been done. If the advocates of these policies are questioned it rapidly becomes clear that they have not done their sums. It is worse than this: they seem not even to know what it means to study these questions scientifically. At best, they have consulted some sociologists specialising in energy matters, yet they are markedly reluctant to seek genuine scientific advice. Not only do they not know, they seem not to want to know, or even to know what knowing actually means. This is an alarming situation. These matters are extremely important for our health and even for our survival. If we do not make at least roughly the right decisions we and our children will suffer severely. Presumably the environmental organisations also want the right decisions to be made, but they seem unable to understand that careful scientific analysis must precede decision-making.

What does this mean? Consider energy efficiency. Obviously it is good to increase efficiency. But what does efficiency mean, and how much does it cost? For example, we could replace an old machine by a new one that makes more things per hour and emits less smoke. However it costs money to do this, and will the expenditure ever be repaid by increased production? If not, the cost of the product will have to be increased, and this might put the factory out of business, and throw people out of work.

It is obviously desirable that we must reduce energy demand. For years now the total world consumption of energy has been rising rapidly, doubling about every fourteen years. Clearly this cannot go on forever. Even if we could build the power stations to meet the growing demand, we would ultimately be choked by the pollution, if we keep to fossil fuels. So how can we reduce energy demand? Exhortation is no good. The only obviously practicable way is to increase the cost. This will not stop the waste of energy on luxury sports like powerboat racing but it will reduce the amount of winter heating that old people can afford. Just increasing the cost will reduce demand, but it is far too crude. Some form of differential tariff s might do the trick, but they need to be very carefully thought out.

Power stations are huge ugly buildings that often belch out black smoke, cause acid rain and contribute to the greenhouse effect. We would be better off without them. Unfortunately, unless we are willing to do without electricity and all the associated benefits, we must have energy. So why not get the energy we need from clean, safe windmills and solar panels? This is a very attractive argument, but alas, it collapses in the face of hard facts. The wind does not always blow, the sun does not always shine. So where do we get our energy on cold, cloudy windless days? Unfortunately there is no economic way to store large quantities of energy; it must be produced when it is needed. We must have reliable energy sources that will produce energy continually, whatever the weather or time of day.

Windmills and solar panels are useful sources of energy in certain rather limited circumstances. Windmills can pump water for farms and grind corn. Solar panels can warm up our domestic water. But these two sources cannot, by their very nature, provide the huge quantities of energy required by modem industries and cities. In addition, the energy they produce is substantially more costly than that produced in large power stations, and they are appreciably more dangerous. This means that statistically more people are killed and injured per unit of energy generated. Finally, windmills and solar panels are a monstrous blot on the landscape. Some six thousand windmills, spread over two hundred square miles, are needed to produce the same amount of energy as a single conventional power station. The environmental organisations glibly talk about 'sensitive siting', but a windmill will not operate if tucked away in a dell; it must be on high, exposed ground, where it can be seen for miles. Solar panels also occupy a large area and cannot be hidden away. Windmills and solar panels are thus unable to provide the energy we need while they hideously disfigure the countryside. Why they are so fervently supported by environmental organisations is a complete mystery.

We must reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. This is absolutely true and cannot be emphasised too often. They are all, in varying degrees, seriously polluting, and this is one of the most serious threats not only to the countryside but to our very quality of life. Oil and gas are fast running out, and will become increasingly scarce over the next few decades. Quite apart from this, they form the basis of our petrochemical industries, and it is grossly wasteful just to burn these highly valuable and complex chemicals. The days of the North Sea oilfields are unfortunately numbered, and it is politically unwise to rely for our lifeblood on oil and gas shipments from regions that are not only far away, but often notoriously unstable politically, such as the Middle East.

So what about coal? There is enough coal to last several hundred years, and coal power stations have supplied most of our energy for many decades, and this will continue into the future. Unfortunately they are polluting, depending on the amount of sulphur and other impurities in the coal. Most of these impurities can be removed by installing scrubbers in the smoke stacks, but this is very costly. It is relatively easy to remove most of the pollutants, but increasingly difficult to remove the remainder. If they were nearly all removed, the price of electricity from coal would be increased by probably as much as four times. Are we willing to pay this price for clean air? This plan only refers to the impurities in the coal, responsible for emission of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, as well as smaller amounts of other impurities, that together contribute to acid rain. What is not removed is the carbon dioxide that comes from the burning of the coal itself, and which contributes to the greenhouse effect. It is never seriously suggested that this could be removed, so it is always produced by coal power stations. So we arrive at the conclusion that the only practicable large-scale power source is seriously polluting and therefore harmful to the environment.

If that were the case, our situation would truly be desperate. Are there no other alternatives? What about hydropower? This is certainly a very important source in mountainous countries like Norway and Switzerland, and in Europe is now exploited more or less to the limit. There are unexploited possibilities in other countries, but globally speaking it cannot provide more than about ten per cent of the world's energy needs. The situation is rather similar for tidal power, although the potential is much smaller. Other energy sources such as wave and geothermal are either unproven, uneconomic or inevitably small-scale.

So do we not have a very serious problem? Nuclear power, of course, is out, according to the environmentalists. The very word evokes a howl of execration. Nuclear reactors are liable at any moment to blow up like Chernobyl and spread deadly radioactivity over the countryside. If this is true, we are done for anyway, because there are enough nuclear reactors in France, Belgium and Germany, to name only the countries nearest to Britain, to pose a serious threat.

But what are the facts, if one can gain a moment's hearing? Nuclear reactors certainly have the capacity to meet our energy needs; they supply 75 per cent of the electricity of France, and around half of those of many other countries. They are not liable to blow up at any moment. The Chernobyl reactor was badly built according to an unsafe design that would never be accepted in the West, and on the night of the disaster the operators ignored the safety instructions. Radioactivity can be easily detected, and emissions from power stations are very carefully controlled so that they are far less than the background radiation that we all receive all the time. Indeed, nuclear power stations emit less radioactivity than coal power stations. Their power generating costs are broadly comparable to those of coal, and will certainly improve if polluting emissions from coal power stations are controlled. Finally, the hazards to workers in the nuclear power industry are lower than for other energy sources, apart from gas. And what about the effects on the environment? Nuclear power stations, although large, can to some extent be sensitively sited. They take up less land than any other power source. Most important of all, in normal operation they emit essentially no pollutants. Environmentally they are the most benign of all power sources. And yet these, we are told, should be shut down.

So why are they not enthusiastically supported by environmental organisations? That also is a mystery. These organisations are full of well-meaning people, who in many other ways are doing sterling work to preserve the environment. But in energy matters they support policies that are nothing less than a recipe for disaster, not only for the environment but for society. They have not thought through the consequences of these policies, and do not even seem to be aware that their policies have to be argued and justified, and cannot just be asserted. Without scientific examination, without numerical studies, no wise policies can be formulated. It is a complex task that has only been sketched here. Science is an indispensable ally in our light to save the environment, and the sooner this is recognised the better it will be for us all.

[Dr. Peter Hodgson is Head of the Nuclear Physics Theoretical Group, Nuclear Physics Laboratory, in the University of Oxford, and a Senior Research Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Oxford. ]
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Title Annotation:formulating effective and factual environmental policies
Author:Hodgson, Peter
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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