Buying Time: Environmental Collapse and the Future of Energy, Kaz Makabe. Lebanon, NH: ForeEdge, 2017.
Summary: A study that looks at the world’s increasing energy demands and the environmental challenges these pose, and makes the argument that nuclear power, even with its risks, needs to be considered in the energy mix.
A number of years ago I led a group in my church in doing an environmental audit of the resources we used in the activities of our daily lives, the source of these resources, and what happened to these after our use. It was an eye-opening exercise for all of us, particularly as we realized how heavily dependent we are upon electricity. As I write, the light, the air conditioning in my home, the computer on which I am writing, the TV in the living room, the washer and dryer laundering our clothes, and the refrigerator preserving our food all run on electricity. That’s typical of most of our homes. Multiply this by our businesses and manufacturers, and the devices from phones to cars that require re-charging and you realize how highly dependent we are upon the reliable supply of electric power.
Kaz Makabe takes this a step further and looks at the integral relationship between energy supply and economic growth, and the rapid emergence of countries like China and India, as well as existing developed countries from the United States to the EU to Japan and South Korea. Clearly the demands for energy are going to grow. Furthermore, the “energy return on investment” (EROI) is crucial, and sources of energy that have low ratios of return can put a check on development, particularly if the overall mix drops below 8, which he proposes is an “energy cliff.”
The additional factor that must be weighed in all of this is environmental impacts. On the one hand, fossil fuels provide a high EROI–a lot of energy for the buck. But the environmental impacts from air quality that impacts the health of people, to CO2 emissions, that potentially impact the the health of the planet are leading many to conclude that a move from fossils fuels is necessary because of how much these contribute to human-generated CO2.
Yet there is a problem and that is that the other more “sustainable” sources such as wind and solar at their present stage of development cannot fill the gap, and certainly not with the economy of fossil fuel. This could lead to limited growth or even collapses as the effects of an energy shortage cascade through an economy.
Enter nuclear. Makabe, who lives in Tokyo in the shadow of Fukushima, argues that for all its problems, nuclear, and particular Generation IV nuclear technologies, need to be included in the mix of options we consider in a world of growing populations, developing economies, and potential or actual environmental perils. He does this with open eyes, surveying the history of nuclear power, and the accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. He notes the problems of regulatory structures, dated technologies, and inadequate safety protocols that led to each of these disasters.
He also explores newer technologies, some of which use the most hazardous products of our existing nuclear waste, and generate far less and safer wastes, are capable of modular construction at lower costs, and have design features for greater safety. He also chronicles how regulatory constraints, and the interests of those committed to older technologies from obsolete plants to manufacturers have slowed the implementation of Generation IV designs. Furthermore, taking plants offline following Fukushima, and slowing implementation in other countries has led to increased carbon emissions as fossil fuel plants have largely filled the gap.
In the chapter preceding his conclusion, Makabe argues that never has the need for innovation been so great, given the challenges the human species faces. He notes with concern the slowdowns in many fields such as antibiotics. He touches on a concern I’ve come across with increasing frequency, the displacement of humans by intelligent machines from jobs that could accelerate in the coming years. As we face all these challenges, he concludes that it is imperative in the field of energy that we “buy the time” our civilization needs for facing these changes with not only development of renewable forms of sustainable energy, but new nuclear technologies that provide the energy that allows us to stave off economic collapse or conflict for ever more scarce energy.
What I appreciate about this book is its calm realism. I’ve always scratched my head as I look at the question of implementing renewable energy and the challenge of providing enough energy to replace fossil fuel. Yet it seems many who argue for renewables want to take both fossil and nuclear power options off the table. Currently in my state (Ohio) 97 percent of our power comes from fossil fuels (83 percent) or nuclear power (14 percent). I do think that much can be done to incentivize renewable implementation and to encourage economies in usage. It does seem an error to subsidize fossil fuels, if we need to move from this source (kind of like subsidizing tobacco producers). But it does seem that if we were to try to even halve our use of fossil fuels, it would take us a very long time to get there at even our current energy usage if nuclear energy could not be considered.
What the book doesn’t address as much as I would have liked are what needs to happen to change both the regulatory environment and safety protocols to convince an apprehensive public to allow nuclear into their back yard. If new technologies cannot get built and licensed, and if implementation of safety protocols are not enhanced and monitored by those with an “arms length” relationship to the industry, it’s not going to happen, or it will happen shoddily if we get desperate enough. Reform of the industry and its regulation needs to accompany the economic and technological case Makabe makes.
What Makabe has given us are good reasons for doing that hard work, even as we take a hard nosed look at the challenges and risks in our energy future.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.