Do We Need To Go Nuclear On Climate Change?
Minding the collision of business, energy, science & the environment.
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May 28, 2015,11:24am EDT
This article is more than 7 years old.
“Climate change is the biggest environmental challenge of our time,” Yukiya Amano, head of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, told French ministers at a meeting in Paris on Wednesday. “As governments around the world prepare to negotiate a legally binding, universal agreement on climate at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris at the end of the year, it is important that the contributions that nuclear science and technology can make to combating climate change are recognized.”
A few days earlier, Christine Todd Whitman, the former Republican Governor of New Jersey and one-time chief of the Environmental Protection Agency under George W. Bush, added her thoughts on the same topic: “Nuclear energy already provides more than 64 percent of our nation’s clean-air electricity,” Whitman wrote in an op-ed for The Hill blog — one sponsored by the industry’s chief lobby, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI).
“[I]ts long-term benefits simply cannot be replaced by any other energy source,” Whitman added, “especially when we consider the long-term impacts of climate change.”
It would be easy to dismiss such appeals as so much self-serving industry propaganda — not least because Whitman herself serves as a co-chair of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, a Washington DC-based outfit that bills itself as a “grassroots organization that supports the increased use of nuclear power,” but which is essentially a public-relations project financed by the NEI.
It is surely a bit of spin, but the core argument here — that nuclear power has a key role to play in the effort to combat global warming — is one that increasingly cuts across social and partisan lines. President Obama’s proposed Clean Power Plan would provide a small credit to states that rely on nuclear power as part of their proposed emissions reduction schemes, and the nuclear industry is lobbying hard to have that credit increased — something that the administration has suggested it is considering.
“Nuclear power is part of an all-of-the-above, diverse energy mix and provides reliable baseload power without contributing to carbon pollution,” an Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman recently told The Hill blog. “Nuclear power from current and future plants can help the U.S. meet its [emissions reduction] goals.”
That notion has become axiomatic in certain scientific and policy circles — and indeed, many experts have argued that the sort of swift reduction in global carbon emissions that is needed to stabilize global warming simply cannot be achieved without an expansion of nuclear power. Such was the conclusion of a handful of the world’s most prominent climate scientists, who penned an open letter to environmental groups in 2013 imploring them to abandon their reflexive opposition to nuclear energy, for the sake of the planet.
“As climate and energy scientists concerned with global climate change, we are writing to urge you to advocate the development and deployment of safer nuclear energy systems,” wrote the group of scientists, which included NASA’s James Hansen, Kerry Emanuel of MIT, Tom Wigley of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Colorado and Ken Caldeira at the Carnegie Institution for Science in California. “We appreciate your organization’s concern about global warming, and your advocacy of renewable energy. But continued opposition to nuclear power threatens humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change.”
“Almost half of the American population believes that nuclear power makes the global warming problem worse.”
The reasoning behind this: While renewable, low-carbon power sources like wind, solar and biomass are important, these energy sources simply can’t be developed quickly enough, and at the sort of scales necessary, to truly combat the gathering climate crisis.
Not everyone agrees with this line of thinking, of course, and two years after the scientists’ impassioned letter — and despite some bipartisan support and continued investment in safer, next-generation nuclear technologies — a true nuclear renaissance remains, for the most part, an industry pipe dream.
“The nuclear industry is in decline,” declared the authors of the most recent World Nuclear Industry Status Report. Part of this can be blamed on the meltdown that befell the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan in 2011, which spread new fears about nuclear power across the globe and nudged several governments to halt projects or forswear nuclear power development all together.
Still, the industry was stagnating long before this. The 2014 nuclear status report counted a total of 388 operating reactors globally as of 2014 — 50 fewer than the high point for the nuclear power industry in 2002. Total installed nuclear power capacity inched up as high as 367 gigawatts in 2012, but has since retreated to 333 gigawatts, which is “comparable to levels last seen two decades ago,” according the authors. Nuclear power’s total share of the energy pie is now at a new low, accounting for just 4.4 percent of global commercial primary energy production.
The International Energy Agency attributes the industry’s broader struggle, which began in the 1990’s, to a variety of factors. These include increasing public concerns over safety, to be sure (see earlier incidents like Three Mile Island or Chernobyl), but also a plague of high costs and construction delays (a 1985 article in Forbes magazine suggested that the U.S. nuclear power plant build-out was “the largest managerial disaster in business history”), and the more recent re-emergence of cheap and abundant fossil fuels — particularly natural gas.
The upshot of all of this is that whatever reactor construction is underway is concentrated mostly in Asia, while ambivalence toward nuclear power continues in the West — including in the United States, which is among the world’s giants in per capita greenhouse gas emissions, and where climate scientists have begun pleading with anti-nuclear activists to reconsider their positions for the sake of the planet.
So far, the argument isn’t working.
Public support for nuclear power in the U.S. is nearly at its lowest point in 20 years of polling, according to the Gallup organization. Even more telling: According to the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut, most Americans really don’t make a strong connection between nuclear power and climate change solutions. In fact, while there are virtually no greenhouse emissions associated with the day-to-day operation of a nuclear power plant, almost half of the American population — 44 percent — believes that nuclear power plants actually make the global warming problem worse, according to Roper’s analysis.
That sort of confusion doesn’t bode well for a rapid expansion of nuclear power — and that seems to suit many climate advocates just fine.
Early last year, in response to the nuclear advocacy of of Hansen et al, a group of over 300 civil society and regional environmental groups published a letter of their own: “Instead of embracing nuclear power, we request that you join us in supporting an electric grid dominated by energy efficiency, renewable, distributed power and storage technologies,” the organizations wrote. “We ask you to join us in supporting the phase-out of nuclear power as Germany and other countries are pursuing. It is simply not feasible for nuclear power to be a part of a sustainable, safe and affordable future for humankind.”
More recently, Worldwatch Institute founder and Earth Policy Institute president Lester Brown has argued that a global transition away from fossil fuels and cleaner, climate-friendly sources of energy is already well underway — and all without the help of nuclear power. As of last year, Brown and his co-authors note in a new book, The Great Transition, “some 31 countries were still operating nuclear power plants, but scarcely half as many … were building new ones.”
Whether that’s good news or bad news for the climate remains very much an open question. Critics argue that nuclear power is simply too risky, and more practically speaking, too costly to be considered a significant part of the post-carbon energy portfolio. Others wonder why cost is seen as an impediment for some technologies, but not others.
“When renewables are expensive, people want to find ways to bring costs down, [but] when nuclear is expensive, people see cost as a reason to reject the technology,” noted Ken Caldeira, the atmospheric scientist and one of the co-authors of the 2013 open letter arguing for further development of nuclear power. “I would think some combination of innovation and more sensible regulations could bring costs down in the nuclear sector.”
Caldeira also suggested that those hoping wind and solar power alone might deliver the world from runaway greenhouse gas emissions are fooling themselves.
“From the position of physical possibility, sufficient power could be delivered without nuclear,” Caldeira said. “In the real world, with technical, economic, and political constraints, it seems highly unlikely that society can stabilize climate without nuclear power.
“The question is not ‘What is possible?'” he added, “but ‘What is feasible?’ or ‘what is achievable given real world constraints?'”
Reasonable people might disagree on the answers, but these are precisely the sort of questions that the nation’s leaders ought to be confronting with a greater sense of urgency, according to Michael E. Mann, professor of meteorology and the director of Earth System Science Center at Penn State University.
“I think there is an honest debate to be had about the role of nuclear power in the transition away from fossil fuel energy,” Mann said. “I don’t see it as my role to try to prescribe that debate, but I will say this: Were that Congress was busy engaging in this worthy discussion of solutions, rather than denying that climate change even exists.”