Gaia Theory Author: Nuclear Power Integral to Earth's Survival

LONDON, United Kingdom, September 25, 2000 (ENS) - A leading light in the environmental movement, James Lovelock, declares his support for nuclear power in his autobiography due out Thursday.


Scientist, inventor and author, James Lovelock. (Photo by Brig Klyce, courtesy Gaia)
Lovelock invented the electron capture detector, which revealed the widespread distribution of pesticide residues and inspired Rachel Carson's 1962 best seller "Silent Spring." The book is widely credited with launching the modern environmental movement.

The 81 year old scientist's invention was responsible more recently for the discovery of the global distribution of nitrous oxide and of chlorofluorocarbons, both significant ozone depleters and subject to global treaties limiting their emissions.

It was Lovelock's writings on Earth's unique atmosphere which led him to the Gaia theory and the forefront of scientific and environmental debate. Gaia was the Greek goddess who drew the living world forth from chaos.

It is Lovelock's term for a theory that the Earth is itself a living organism capable of regulating its climate and chemical composition for the comfort of the organisms that inhabit it.

In his latest book "Homage to Gaia: The Life of an Independent Scientist," Lovelock argues that nuclear power is the only "safe, economic and practical" alternative to the continued widespread use of fossil fuels.

Burning fossil fuels such as coal to generate electricity produces so-called greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, a major contributor to global warming. As Lovelock puts it, this process "slowly impairs the Earth's capacity to self-regulate and sustain, as it has always done, a planet fit for life."


The Fast Flux Test Facility (FFTF), located north of Richland, Washington, is a 400-megawatt thermal, liquid metal (sodium) cooled reactor. Lovelock argues nuclear power's benefits to the planet outweigh its potential harm. (Photo courtesy Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)
Although hard to separate from the horrors of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, fear of nuclear energy is unjustified, writes Lovelock. "Nuclear power plants are not bombs. What at first was a proper concern for safety has become a near pathological anxiety, and much of the blame for this goes to the news media, the television and film industries, and fiction writers," he continues.

Nuclear power, while "potentially harmful," represents a "negligible danger" to the planet as a whole, says Lovelock.

"I hope that it is not too late for the world to emulate France and make nuclear power its principal source of energy," he writes. "There is at present no other safe, practical and economic substitute for the dangerous practice of burning carbon fuels."

But a report released in June by the UK's Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution said that nuclear power cannot be part of the solution to global warming unless its dangers are dealt with to the satisfaction of the scientific community and the general public. "People are unlikely to accept new nuclear power stations unless they are part of a strategy that also delivers radical improvements in energy efficiency and an equal opportunity for deploying renewable energy sources that can compete in terms of costs and reduced environmental impacts."

All but one of the UK's 35 presently operating nuclear reactors will close within 25 years. Within five years, the government should set out how it intends to prevent this from causing an increase in emissions of carbon dioxide, the Royal Commission said.


Lovelock's intuition that living organisms regulate the temperature of Earth's surface and the chemical composition of its atmosphere to keep it suitable for life came to him while working on experiments to detect life on Mars at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1965. (Photo courtesy Gaia)
"New nuclear stations are not indispensable in delivering long term emission reductions energy efficiency measures, renewable energy sources and capture and disposal of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel fired power stations could all be viable alternatives," the Royal Commission said. "No reactors should be built until the problem of radioactive waste management has been solved to the satisfaction of both the scientific community and the general public."

"Homage to Gaia: The Life of an Independent Scientist" is due to be published by Oxford University Press this Thursday. It is the fourth book Lovelock has written on the Gaia theory. He works from home in the county of Devon, about 200 miles west of London, using the proceeds from his inventions and development of scientific instruments to fund his research.

"Modern science has become as professional as the advertising industry," wrote Lovelock in "The Ages of Gaia."

"Nearly all scientists are employed by some large organization, such as a governmental department, a university, or a multinational company. Only rarely are they free to express their science as a personal view. They may think that they are free, but in reality they are, nearly all of them, employees; they have traded freedom of thought for good working conditions, a steady income, tenure, and a pension," he wrote.

"Now perhaps you see why I work at home supporting myself and my family by whatever means come to hand. It is no penance, rather a delightful way of life that painters and novelists have always known. Fellow scientists join me," he invites. "You have nothing to lose but your grants."