Spending two days surrounded by scientists was not all I expected…
I have just spent a very stimulating two days at the Australian Frontiers of Science conference Science in a Green Economy in Sydney. My thanks go to the organisers for their invitation and hospitality.
I learned about some amazing work by lots of amazing people, like a genetically modified rice strain that holds enough iron and zinc to become a far more nutritious food for the billions depending on it as a staple. Punchline? No genes from other organisms, just using science to leave a natural rice gene running. The kicker? Early field trials indicate yields are increased.
I learned even more about just how badly we have dropped the ball in terms of our rampant, unfettered use of nitrogen fertiliser. I learned about efforts to control this while maintaining and increasing yields from cereal crops.
I learned that an Australian outfit is now able to accurately predict and measure the carbon held in biochar produced from a range of different feedstocks. That’s big news for a climate geek like me. I learned that much aquaculture comes at a serious ecological penalty of fish that are sacrificed as an input, but that this is improving fast.
I also learned a little more about uncertainty.
As I heard in the opening speech of the conference, uncertainty in science does not mean we do not know where the truth lies. It is the way of putting some bounds around the truth. It is in the uncertainty that scientists like to spend their time, because that it where the interesting debate and work lies. But it is in the truth that they want the decision-makers to focus.
So you could say I have found the mixed response to my presentation to be very, very interesting.
Some responses were very, very positive. But something else went around. The idea that it was a “sales pitch”, which I heard second hand (which is sadly ironic, as I was present at the conference unpaid and absent from my business), but this to me first hand: “You presented it as though there is no uncertainty”.
I knew I was an outsider, but this drove it home.
I do not work in science. I work in environmental decision-making where science is one of my tools. If my default focus was on uncertainty… I would be exceptionally poor at it. So, no. I did not spend 15 valuable minutes exploring the “uncertainty” associated with the potential role of Small Modular Reactors in Australia.
But now that I have the luxury of time, waiting for my plane…
Greenhouse gases are warming the planet to a very, very dangerous level. This is certain.
Nuclear power performs the same job as coal in much the same way. This is certain.
In doing so, it emits no greenhouse gas. This is certain.
In 1998 Australia prohibited nuclear power. Since then greenhouse emissions in our electricity sector have grown 18%. This is certain.
If we replace our aging fossil generation with nuclear generation, our greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector will plunge. This is certain.
As discussed in my presentation, the high capital costs, lag on returns, and size of the single generating units will make large nuclear difficult to deploy in Australia. This is certain.
Now for a few areas where I think I was expected to discuss the “uncertainty” in a little more detail.
Nuclear power is, by a significant margin, the safest major power source in the world.
The three nuclear incidents that we can all name have a total number of attributable fatalities approximately the same as that of the explosion at a Venezuelan oil refinery in 2012 which no one can name.
Peer reviewed modelling undertaken to measure the worst possible fatality outcome from the release of radiation from Fukushima, using the most conservative possible approach (linear, no threshold model), yielded a total hypothetical future number of fatalities (134 deaths) around 10 times smaller than the best estimate death toll from exposure to one type of air pollution in Bangkok alone (1,580 deaths)…every single year.
Spent nuclear fuel in dry storage is a heavy, radioactive ceramic encased in monolithic concrete and steel structures. The radiation goes nowhere, nor can it, unlike the everyday gaseous pollution from fossil energy production. The human and environmental hazard from spent nuclear fuel is infinitesimally smaller than that of pollution from fossil fuels.
None of the above statements are uncertain to any serious degree. So rolling all of the above together, how certain can we be that the deployment of nuclear in place of fossil would make the world a much better place? Something just short of 100%.
So, to my new scientist friends, recall the description of uncertainty we were all given, walk a day in my professional shoes and ask yourself this question:
If I am ever using your research to assist in an environmental decision making process, where might you hope I help my clients focus? On the uncertainty? Or on the truth that lies within it?