Reassessing Nuclear Power

"Nuclear power has brought us Chernobyl and Fukushima. If the current industry were scaled up enough to solve the climate problem, there would be one such accident each year--and that is clearly unacceptable" Dr. Ken Caldeira (2015a)(1).

In the U.S., where nuclear power has been stalled for decades, it represents more than 19% of the electrical grid(2). But at the cost of long lived nuclear waste, horrifying disasters, and slow, expensive construction. As it stands, to some environmentalists it appears little better than coal: "It is simply not feasible for nuclear power to be a part of a sustainable, safe and affordable future for humankind"(3) The way disasters and near misses shake confidence in commercial nuclear it's not surprising that nations like Germany and Japan look to phase out nuclear power. So what could cause staunch climate scientists like Caldeira(4) or James Hansen(5) to put nuclear power on the table, after devoting decades of their careers and lives to raising our understanding of climate change? Perhaps the better question is, why do some(6) respond like doing so denies better options of clean energy?

"Fossil fuels provided the energy that today's developed world employed to reach its current standard of living... if fossil fuels provide the only realistic available path to development and improved living standards, that path surely will be taken" Hansen (2014).

In 2013 Drs. James Hansen, Kerry Emanuel, Tom Wigley, and Ken Caldeira wrote an open letter in which they urged environmental policy makers against explicit opposition to nuclear power(7). Stating "continued opposition to nuclear power threatens humanity's ability to avoid dangerous climate change" (emphasis added). More recently the four gathered at COP21 to again speak on the urgency to decarbonize world energy(8).  They spoke in favor of nuclear power specifically as a compliment to clean renewables like wind and solar, to overcome the intermittency problem with current technology. "To avoid the worst effects of climate change... rapid global decarbonization is needed" (Caldeira et al 2015). While renewables and energy storage may be developed enough in time, we don't have time to wait.

The main issue is just how significant the problem is. And talking about melting icecaps, possible extinction of some species, and a few degrees warmer temperature have been said so much that it doesn't get to the root problem. The planet has always gone through changes, species have always been at risk of extinction if they cannot adapt (and that adaptation could take it far enough away from the species we once knew), but the planet has always had its balance. What we are doing is pushing the balance to ever more energy, from the sun's heat. At the December 3rd press conference(9) the four scientists held, Hansen points out that more than a one or two degree Celsius cap on change, the energy imbalance should be addressed. That energy imbalance, which he once described as the equivalent of detonating 400,000 Hiroshima style atomic bombs per day (Hansen 2012), hasn't changed much since then(10). We may be able to adapt, some species may be able to thrive in the new balance, but the interim will not be easy. Even if we completely stopped today, that much energy will be gained until the new balance is reached--in the form of hotter oceans, stronger storms, and so on. And the longer we take, the worse the balance gets. 

"If renewable energies can do the whole job economically, as some people argue, that would be great. Put a price on carbon and let all parts of the private sector compete" Hansen (2010)(11).

The idea that renewable energy could make a completely clean energy grid is great, even more so if that can be affordable to developing nations which will need more energy to raise quality of life, and in many cases to escape poverty. But the technology and cost aren't entirely certain. Rather than placing all bets worldwide on clean renewables, Hansen often proposes the viability of a straight-forward tax on carbon. This tax would let all clean energy compete effectively which allows each region to develop what clean energy is best for its needs and resources. It doesn't artificially place nuclear where it's not wanted or needed, but it also doesn't artificially remove a valuable tool for decarbonization. If nuclear really is too expensive, if it really isn't needed when the wind doesn't blow, then it's fine--but to be explicitly against it is a problem.

"To say that an entire category of technology can never be sufficiently improved is, I think, to adopt a position of technological myopia, where one lacks to the capacity to imagine that future technologies can differ substantially from today's technologies" Caldeira (2015a)

Regarding safety it's important to realize that next generation reactors can be substantially safer than the light water reactors (LWR) almost ubiquitously used today. There are safer options, capable of burning spent or unenriched fuel. But these designs primarily remain on paper in the U.S., and long implementation times with expensive construction make it unlikely to use nuclear for rapid decarbonization. But a cause I've seen both Emanuel and Hansen note lies with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). As Hansen put it in one opinion piece "The NRC... has been converted from the top into a lawyer-laden organization that can take many months or years to approve even simple adjustments to plans"(12). In an interview I had with Emanuel, he clarifies that no one wants nuclear to be regulated any less, but that the NRC's age and development around older LWR technology may be why we've become over-reliant on this one form of nuclear power.

For more on the topic, click here for my interview with Dr. Emanuel

James Hansen is a climate scientist at Columbia University Earth Institute 
Kerry Emanuel is an atmospheric scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Tom Wigley is a climate scientist at University of Adelaide and the National Center for Atmospheric Research
Ken Caldeira senior scientist at Carnegie Institution for Science

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