Turning Tides: Climate Change Watershed Prompts Reevaluation of Nuclear Energy and Deep-Sea Mining

The continuously evolving misleading narratives, which inaccurately depict the risks associated with nuclear energy, share notable similarities with ongoing polarized debates surrounding deep-sea mining.

Energy policy and environmentalism have long proven to be ideological battlegrounds, with frequent rifts over offshore drilling, gas pipelines, wind farms, hydropower, and nuclear energy standing as divisive roadblocks in a widening partisan debate.

Amidst the persisting climate protests targeting the combustion of fossil fuels and worldwide shift toward sustainable energy alternatives, a paradox emerges in the current focus of Greenpeace activism on deep-sea mining. Namely, their intervention with research vessels engaged in authorized scientific data exploration supervised by the International Seabed Authority raises questions. This form of protest appears at odds with the overarching goals of the environmental movement, which advocates for the adoption of renewable energy sources. The situation also draws striking parallels to historical protests against nuclear plants.

Opponents of deep-sea mining, akin to early critics of nuclear energy, often rely on speculative concerns and employ fear-driven communication when discussing potential environmental consequences. This approach hinders the overarching goal of advancing renewable solutions to combat climate change. The profound effects of climate change, combined with actions by nations possessing abundant energy resources, such as England and Germany back-sliding toward more coal-fired plants and expansive gas export terminals, are reshaping the risk landscape associated with nuclear energy and deep-sea mining.

The sea change in attitudes toward low-carbon energy consumption commenced more than a decade ago, spurred by environmentalist advocates like Ted Nordhaus and Michael Schellenger, co-founders of the Breakthrough Institute—a Bay Area think tank that initially championed the adoption of nuclear energy. Schellenberger, a fervent proponent, played a pivotal role in the ‘Saving Diablo Canyon’ campaign, focused on preserving a nuclear reactor responsible for approximately nine percent of California’s electricity. Efforts to rebuild trust in nuclear energy have involved advancements in safety technologies, improved regulatory frameworks, and the development of newer, safer reactor designs. Those who had once contributed to an atmosphere of mistrust and who initially embraced a scorched earth ethos have begun to recant their positions, prompted by significant advances in the development of next generation reactors.

The surge in climate change awareness even brought activists like Carol Browner, the former head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under President Clinton, to the forefront. In an interview with Forbes magazine, she stated, “Several years ago I had to reevaluate my thinking because if you agree with the world’s leading climate scientists that global warming is real and must be addressed immediately then you cannot simply oppose clean, low-carbon energy sources.”

The continuously evolving misleading narratives, which inaccurately depict the risks associated with nuclear energy, share notable similarities with the ongoing polarized debates surrounding deep-sea mining. Remarkably, the scientific discussion supporting deep-sea mining emerged prominently in 2016 when the Pew Seabed Mining Project advocated for science-based precautionary regulations to protect underwater ecosystems. Simultaneously, numerous scientific publications advocated for nuclear energy as a vital and secure remedy to address the challenges posed by climate change.

However, the public’s ignorance of advances in upstream energy mineral and power generation has been exacerbated by social media misinformation campaigns and media coverage of protests. The general alarmism that once replaced reasoned conversation and scientific knowledge around nuclear has similarly extended to seabed mining. Unbothered by such domestic and international concerns, China has established itself as the front-runner in the nuclear reactor construction industry, with 21 reactors under construction, as the US attempts to revive its nuclear industry, mostly through the development of new, safer, smaller modular reactor designs. Author, environmentalist, entrepreneur, and economist Paul Hawken sees this a different way, stating via email “These issues are entirely different. Those who lack knowledge of marine ecology and ecosystems will oppose ocean mining, and opposition to nuclear power is predicated on cycle analysis and fear.”

Deep-sea minerals, particularly nodules containing nickel, cobalt, copper and manganese, present a level of complexity similar to terrestrial deposits. It’s crucial to acknowledge that not all deposits and extraction methods are equal. Nodules, rock formations about the size of potatoes, have advanced the most in terms of commercial viability. This progress is attributed to both their economic potential and the relatively lower environmental impact associated with their collection.

While some environmentalists express concerns about the potential impact on marine ecosystems, others can see a potential for responsible use of nodules to drive the energy transition. Dr. Gregory Stone, chief ocean scientist for The Metals Company, an advocate for ocean conservation and co-founder of the Ocean Health Index, claims that the emerging scientific evidence from the Company’s Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) and peer-reviewed studies, leads him to believe that if deep-sea mining is done responsibly, “it is by far the best and most viable option for meeting the base metal demands of the world in the coming decades.”

 The Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), an area that spans more than 4.5 million square kilometers, situated between Hawaii and Mexico, is the most researched area under the International Seabed Authority. According to Pew Trusts, the energy-rich expanse still requires more research on oceanographic, biological, and ecological linkages between deep-ocean habitats and the rest of the ocean and planet. The knowledge base is well on its way: the ISA and UNESCO Ocean Biodiversity Information System (OBIS) now house the largest repository of deep-ocean data ever compiled from institutions worldwide.

As countries increasingly look to the ocean as a frontier for economic development, plans to utilize critical minerals from the deep-seabed are gathering pace. The transition to a green economy has brought about an urgency now seen in Norway announcing its intention to open nearly 108,600 square miles of its deep-sea territory for mineral exploration and environmental impact assessment. “We need minerals to succeed in the green transition,” emphasized Terje Aasland, Norway’s Minister of Petroleum and Energy, in a government statement. He highlighted the importance of Norway facilitating a new ocean industry, asserting that no other country is better situated to responsibly and sustainably lead in the management of such resources. But drawing parallels to the widespread anti-nuclear protests observed in the United States, the Deep-sea Conservation Coalition, has amplified its strong stance against seabed mining in the Arctic. This advocacy has sparked a wave of opposition from various organizations, including the World Wildlife Fund, which is actively challenging Norway through its ‘No Deep-seabed Mining’ initiative.

Since the 1970s, nations like the US, Canada, Germany, France, and Japan have been collecting baseline data and developing the necessary technology. For the first time since, TMC subsidiary Nauru Ocean Resources Inc.’s (NORI), piloted an integrated nodule collection system. Findings have challenged the prevailing belief that seafloor plumes generated during the extraction process rise into the water column and travel considerable distances via ocean currents. These disclosures directly counter the claims of protestor groups, which erroneously assert that the release of plumes—containing sediment and other materials—can elevate water turbidity. Furthermore, a plume study conducted jointly by MIT/Scripps, utilizing field data acquired during collector trials conducted by Belgian contractor GSR, also challenges activist speculation and misleading media narratives. The study indicates that 92-98% of sediment mobilized at the seafloor does not rise more than 2 meters above the seafloor—a finding starkly at odds with assumptions made by anti-seabed mining campaigners. “Greenpeace once called for more science but have since turned their back on evidence-based decision-making and are of the view that their voice is the only one that matters, superseding those of all the International Seabed Authority’s (ISA) 169 members,” claims The Metals Company Chairman and CEO, Gerard Barron.

At the 28th Conference of the Parties (COP) in Dubai, participants criticized the slow pace and depth of progress on climate change, highlighting The Paris Agreement’s failure to limit global temperatures and the urgent need to act on a global scale because of the mounting severe droughts, heat waves, and escalating floods making frequent headlines.Bottom of Form The UN deserves credit for popularizing the concept of net-zero goals. This initiative has prompted environmentalists and several non-government organizations (NGOs) to reevaluate their views, emphasizing the adoption of scientific advancements and emerging technologies as essential tools for to achieving net zero emissions. 

In support of the alignment of parallels drawn between nuclear energy and deep- sea mining adoption among non-government organizations (NGOs), consider the following example: Patrick Moore, a former director and founding member of Greenpeace, strongly disagreed with the organization’s anti-nuclear energy position. “Nuclear energy is the safest of all the electricity technologies we have,” Dr. Patrick Moore told NewsNation’s “Special Report.” Despite all the protests and noise about nuclear energy, Moore, like the author Michael Schellenberger, posits that technological innovation, if allowed to continue and grow, will remedy environmental issues as outlined in his iconic book, Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All

Most assuredly, the public requires an unbiased evaluation of both costs and benefits, free from corporate bias and alarmist media coverage. The emerging consensus among well-informed environmentalists is evident: the imperative for low-carbon energy technologies as an urgent and essential response to the climate crisis. Michael Lodge, the secretary general of the International Seabed Authority, the UN-mandated mining regulator, is cognizant of the urgency to explore new technologies and to identify the needed transition to critical minerals required for the manufacture of batteries that will be key to the reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

During last fall’s program held at the Washington D.C.-based Wilson Center, Lodge, delved into the ISA’s commitment to embracing a precautionary stance in safeguarding the marine environment against potential adverse effects of mining activities. The presentation reiterated ISA’s goal of collecting essential scientific data to share with the constellation of stakeholders comprised of public, and private, as well as national, international actors, including non-government organizations. The emphasis on science–driven explorations underscores the organization’s dedication to fostering a sustainable global environment. Recent advancements in reactor technology have underscored the importance of safety measures, especially in the aftermath of incidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima. The recognition of nuclear power as a low-carbon energy source is gradually reshaping perceptions within various environmental groups. This evolving perspective anticipates that ongoing technological progress, with a focused emphasis on minimizing impacts on ocean ecosystems, could pave the way for increased acceptance of deep-sea mining for metal-rich nodules.

These altered views on nuclear energy provide valuable lessons for the deep-sea debate. Emphasizing the importance of a nuanced and evidence-based discussion, they highlight the need for an open dialogue and collaboration between scientists, industry stakeholders, and environmental advocates in shaping responsible supply chains and resource policies. A promising trend is the proactive involvement of companies, governments, and civil society in global deliberations aimed at establishing a regulatory structure for deep-sea mining.  While there is a consensus on the imperative for greener technologies and a sustainable future, a resounding demand for research and caution in the face of oceanic mining persists.

“Deep-sea mining has not yet occurred but will be heavily regulated once it begins. This presents an opportunity to establish adaptive management for environmental protection and for the establishment of green technologies for mining and mineral processing,” claims Dr. James Hein, a retired senior scientist at the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and a member of the Deep Ocean Mining and Environmental Studies (DOMES) team, the original impact studies conducted by the US  in the Clarion Clipperton Zone (CCZ) throughout the 70s and 80s. Precautionary regulatory guidelines and a dedication to international collaboration are prompting a noteworthy discussion within an informed environmentalist community.

The International Seabed Authority (ISA) boasts nearly 100 Observer parties, with approximately half comprising non-governmental organizations  (NGOs) that actively engage in ISA negotiations. This unique scenario allows NGOs to endorse initiatives prioritizing cooperative endeavors in ocean science diplomacy. Such efforts encompass collaboration with the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), all of which provide crucial scientific guidance. “I expect that some opponents of deep-sea mining may adjust their way of thinking and accept a certain ecological impact of deep-sea mining to avoid worse impacts from other activities, especially because in international waters governance, safe supply chains, and resource security may be easier to achieve” asserts Dr. Andrea Koschinsky of Constructor University in Bremen.

Scientists are calling for increased scientific data gathered from explorations in the resource-rich CCZ. However, just how much data would be sufficient has not been specified. On the contrary, over 300 research campaigns have occurred in the CCZ since interest in the area began in the 1960s. Exploration contractors alone have invested over $2 billion in research in this area. All data from these endeavors is publicly accessible through the Regulator and UNESCO databases. The Metals Company (TMC), a Canadian-based company, has already completed an extensive decade-long environmental impact assessment to quantify impacts to the environment from nodule collection. While there remain some gaps in environmental knowledge, there are many studies conducted by a coalition of leading researchers on the measurement of sediment plumes associated with collector vehicles in the deep-sea.  These tractor-sized vehicles sent to the bottom of the sea will vacuum up the nodules.

The findings reveal that ocean nodules, as opposed to land mining for battery metals, lead to substantial environment benefit reducing CO2 emissions to produce battery grade chemicals by over 70% on average, a 94% decrease in stored carbon at risk, and essentially eliminating solid processing waste, according to independent reports. Nauru Ocean Resources Inc. (NORI), a subsidiary of TMC, is bolstering transparency in deep-sea mining research by integrating novel data streaming during deep-sea operations. These streams provide a near real time view of the integrated collection system and environmental effects of its activity.  One would be hard pressed to find this level of access to any mine on land.

The distribution of research data across explorers, along with workshops held with scientists and NGOs, may prove instructive in closing the loop on scientific knowledge available, impact quantification, and the ability to assess whether commercial activity should move forward. Even Avatar director and oceanographer, James Cameron, believes harvesting for raw materials on the seabed is ‘less wrong’ than environmental damage caused on land. Certain marine scientists and their research findings affirm the environmental impact on the deep-sea is comparatively lower than that of land-based mining. An MIT study found that the sediment plume kicked up by mining harvester vehicles did not disperse as widely as others thought it would.

The lessons learned from the nuclear energy debate suggest that proactive engagement with stakeholders, transparent communication, and a commitment to continuous technology innovations are essential components of responsible resource development. These aspects are explicitly present in deep-sea mineral exploration and future commercial collection. With the increasing demand among the public for green technologies to power the world, deep-sea mining offers a pathway towards a net-zero transition. In the midst of shifting perspectives and controversies surrounding both nuclear and deep-sea mining, there is substantial potential to rely on data versus emotion, to chart the optimal strategy that weaves together scientific research, stringent regulation, and international collaboration, laying the foundation for a sustainable future.

James Borton
James Borton
James Borton is an independent journalist, a former non-resident fellow at the Stimson Center, and founding member of the Environmental Peacebuilding Association based in Washington D.C. He is the editor of “Islands and Rocks in the South China Sea: Post Hague Ruling” and “The South China Sea: Challenges and Promises.”