Guest essay by Eric Worrall
The Scientific American reports increasing interest in using nuclear power to lower US CO2 emissions – but Presidential wannabe Bernie Sanders has vowed to decommission all US nuclear power plants.
The Nuclear Option Could Be Best Bet to Combat Climate Change
To cut CO2 pollution, experts argue for nuclear power.
Many analysts are now calling not just to preserve existing nuclear power plants, but to invest in new designs to help fight climate change. “A new round of innovation for nuclear reactors would be quite important,” said Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz last month.
Across the United States, nuclear provides 20 percent of all electricity and more than 60 percent of greenhouse gas-free electricity. But some plants have already shut down ahead of schedule, and others may do so, as well, not because of environmental opposition but because of market forces.
“In the United States today, we have some older plants shutting down,” Moniz said. “The pattern is obvious: It’s principally plants in competitive markets faced with very low natural gas prices.”
“Nuclear is without a question the most important environmental technology in the 21st century,” said Michael Shellenberger, an advocate for nuclear power and president of Environmental Progress.
He said nuclear is the highest rung on the energy ladder that civilizations climb as they move to denser fuels from biomass, to coal, to oil, to gas and finally to uranium. “From an energy and environmental and development perspective, I want everybody to go up the hierarchy of energy,” Shellenberger said.
Under U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan to reduce emissions in the power sector, new nuclear power plants and reactors upgraded to produce more power count toward states’ carbon goals.
The renewed interest in nuclear energy has led to startup companies developing “fourth-generation” reactor designs that are walkaway safe, meaning that if left unattended, they safely coast to a halt.
“All three generations of nuclear technology that are out there today require babysitting,” said
Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates during a panel last month in Washington, D.C. “The nuclear industry has never designed an inherently safe product.”
However, existing reactors are tacking into the wind, in terms of economics and politics. Vermont independent Sen. and Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders has laid out a plan to decommission every reactor in the United States.
Mark Jacobson, an energy researcher at Stanford University who found that it’s feasible for much of the world to run on wind, water and sunlight, acknowledged that nuclear energy has some carbon benefits but said it has an insurmountable drawback of opportunity costs, namely the billions of dollars needed upfront and the decades it takes to plan and build reactors.
“If you’re looking at just one technology in isolation, maybe you don’t care about that opportunity cost,” he said. “But when you’re comparing the two technologies, that becomes relevant. If you have $1 to spend, would you rather spend that on nuclear or wind?”
But the nuclear industry isn’t arguing to be the only option on the table, saying instead that it wants to be an appetizing entree in a buffet of energy options to fight climate change.
“You don’t want to go all in on any one technology,” said NEI’s Keeley. “And NEI is pretty clear about that, too. We see a role for renewables. We see a role for natural gas. We see a role for nuclear.”
The Scientific American article is quite long and wide ranging, in my opinion well worth reading in full.
As a fan of nuclear, I’m happy that nuclear power is getting more traction, though I am concerned the nuclear industry are using the climate “emergency” to promote their product – a strategy which I believe will ultimately backfire.
The hostility presidential wannabe Bernie Sanders expresses towards nuclear power is telling. From my perspective, Bernie Sanders is the kind of green hypocrite who first led me to question the legitimacy of the global warming “emergency”.
Even if nuclear was as risky as greens claim, what is the risk of a few meltdowns, compared to the destruction of the entire biosphere? Hostility to nuclear power doesn’t make sense, if you truly believe the entire world is on the brink of an climate catastrophe.
In my opinion, if socialists like Bernie and Naomi Oreskes cared more about CO2 than social engineering, they would join Scientific American, and scientists like James Hansen, and embrace nuclear power, the only energy technology which has a realistic chance of significantly reducing global CO2 emissions.