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Time to Go Nuclear

Scientists Urge a Reconsideration of Nuclear Energy
June 16, 2019 | Comments

        It is very hard to disagree with members of one’s “tribe,” as we have noted in our book Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us (OUP, 2016). For that reason, we all are a risk of sticking with opinions that are synchronous with maintaining group membership, but not borne out by scientific evidence. Right now, however, it appears dangerous to dismiss scientific evidence that might solve the most pressing problem facing humanity today, the climate crisis.[1]

        No one who accepts scientific evidence disputes that we are already experiencing the dire effects of global temperature increase in the form of severe floods, hurricanes, wild fires, and heat waves. The world’s most vulnerable populations are the most severely affected by these natural disasters. If we allow the earth’s temperature to rise by more than 1.50 Celsius, the pace and severity of these disasters will accelerate. Whole cities will be underwater, species will become extinct, and the number of people who die from climate disasters and the effects of toxic air pollution will increase.

        Nor is there any longer legitimate debate that the cause of global warming is mainly the result of the release of carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels—oil, methane (natural gas), and coal—to create energy. Global warming is caused by humans; hence it is anthropogenic. Experts tell us that to mitigate anthropogenic climate-related catastrophes, we need at minimum to reduce the release of greenhouse gasses (mostly carbon dioxide) by 40% by 2030 and entirely by 2050.

Solar and Wind Will Not Be Sufficient

        Throughout the world, we are now seeing wonderful progress in developing renewable forms of energy production that do not release carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases and therefore do not contribute to global warming. Solar, wind, and hydroelectric energy are all climate change-neutral sources of power that are becoming more and more widespread and cheaper.

        But that good news is balanced by the fact that many scientists are increasingly warning that solar and wind energy have limited potential to prevent the rises in the earth’s temperature that we seek to avoid. Last year Nathan Myhrvold, an energy entrepreneur who formerly worked as Chief Technology Officer at Microsoft Research, wrote in Scientific American that solar, wind, and other sources of renewable energy are limited by “the huge amounts of land needed, the lack of scalable ways to match their inconstant power to society’s unremitting thirst for energy”. The answer to his question “do you know how much of the world’s primary energy comes from fossil fuels today?” is the discouraging “It’s 81 percent—the same as 2006.”

        There is little question that solar and wind power are ideal sources of energy because they have virtually no adverse environmental consequences. Building out solar and wind power fields creates a lot of jobs as well. But the fact remains that the sun does not always shine, and the wind does not always blow, making them inconstant and in need of back-up sources of energy, usually now from burning coal and other fossil fuels. We still do not have batteries and transmission lines capable of storing and transporting energy from solar and wind sources to the extent needed to power the world’s ever-increasing desire for power. There are few rivers left to damn for hydroelectric power and biofuels have not yet been developed that are capable of providing enough energy for us.

        There is, of course, one source of energy that also does not release greenhouse gases, is constant, and has proven more than capable of providing as much energy as we need—nuclear energy. It is almost painful for us to have written that last sentence, because we consider ourselves at Critica to be ardent environmentalists and support the most aggressive means possible to eliminate the burning of all fossil fuels as quickly as possible. Even considering the possibility that nuclear energy might play a role in mitigating the looming climate crisis immediately puts us at odds with people who we have the highest respect and with whom we have worked on climate change issues for many years. We feel that urge to let the nuclear energy issue go in order to maintain positive relationships with our “tribe.”

        It is hard, however, to avoid the science that tells us that contrary to popular belief, nuclear energy may actually be safe, that disposing of radioactive waste from nuclear power plants is not as difficult or dangerous as often portrayed, and that nuclear energy may be our best path toward meaningful inroads in reducing carbon dioxide emissions and eliminating fossil fuels.

Nuclear Energy May Be Essential

For people who have spent a lifetime opposing nuclear energy but nevertheless remain open minded to evidence, a new book will be shocking. In A Bright Future: How Some Countries Have Solved Climate Change and the Rest Can Follow by Joshua S. Goldstein and Staffan A. Qvist (Public Affairs, 2019) we are told repeatedly that “fixing climate change requires all the tools available and does not afford us the luxury of picking only those we like best, since they can’t succeed in isolation” (p. 40). And one of those available tools, the authors insist, is nuclear energy.

        Sweden, it turns out, has been uniquely successful in drastically reducing the amount of fossil fuel used for energy production and it has done this by building more nuclear power plants. While the rest of the world seems determined to shutter nuclear power plants, Sweden built new ones in the 1970s and 1980s. There have been no safety problems and no accidents. Just the clean and constant production of energy at affordable prices.

        Goldstein, a professor emeritus of international relations at American University, and Qvist, a Swedish engineer, scientist, and energy consultant, make the following points in their book:

  •      Personal behavioral steps to conserve energy are laudable but “this approach has in fact had virtually no impact on the world’s carbon emissions” (p. 45).
  •      The world’s poor people, who vastly outnumber the world’s rich people “want more energy, and they have a moral right” (p. 46).
  •      “The story (italics theirs) of using only renewables [e.g. solar and wind] seems compelling, but the scale does not work to rapidly decarbonize the world” (p. 55). In many instances around the world, such as Germany, wind and solar power are being used to replace nuclear power rather than replacing coal and other fossil fuels. Although this allows us to point to the successful implementation of solar and wind energy, it results in no net reduction in carbon dioxide emissions.
  •      No one died or is at increased risk of getting cancer from the nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island or Fukushima, although in the latter case the earthquake and tsunami “themselves killed about 18,000 people” (p. 89).” We will come back to Chernobyl in a moment.
  •      “Coal kills at least a million people every year worldwide, mostly through particulate emissions that give people cancer and other diseases” (pp. 94-95). And lethal accidents at coal minds have killed far more people than nuclear plant accidents.
  •      Handling nuclear waste is far less of a problem than is commonly believed: “The quantities are so much smaller than the waste generated by any other fuel-using power source that they are easily managed” (p. 117) and “From a political and public-opinion perspective, storing nuclear waste is an issue. But from a scientific and technical perspective, it is a nonissue” (p. 127).

A nuclear power plant in Sweden (source: Shutterstock).

The latter point may surprise many people. It did us. But in fact it turns out that nuclear power plants generate surprisingly small amounts of radioactive waste. Although it is often, and correctly, noted that radioactivity from decaying uranium lasts for thousands of years, much of that radiation is dissipated by storing burnt fuel waste in water in the plants themselves for about a year and the rest can be safely stored underground in carefully designed iron and copper cannisters. Finland is now building such an underground storage site and Sweden has plans to do so as well. Solar panels actually produce 300 times as much waste as nuclear power for the same amount of energy generated.

Perhaps the biggest impediment to building nuclear power is that they are expensive, costing about $7 billion to build. But newer models are smaller, more efficient, safer, and cheaper. And once a plant is built, it delivers reliable power without greenhouse gas emissions for decades at very competitive prices. The problem is that we have dropped the ball on research to improve nuclear power generation and we tie up building newer models with endless regulatory hurdles. Protests from environmentalists block the building of new nuclear plants in many instances. Instead of subsidizing the search for new sources of gas and oil, we should be supporting research into nuclear energy production.

Unlike fossil fuel, the exhaust from nuclear power plants is water vapor, completely free of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (source: Shutterstock).

Chernobyl is Not A Useful Example

A documentary series about the Chernobyl nuclear plant was aired by HBO in May and may renew fears of nuclear energy safety. Unlike the accidents at Three Mile Island and Fukushima, there were 31 deaths as a direct result of radiation from the Chernobyl accident and there will likely be thousands of cases of cancer that can be attributed to excessive radioactivity exposure .[2]

But Chernobyl is only a cautionary tale about how not to build or operate a nuclear power plant. In a review of the book Midnight in Chernobyl by journalist Adam Higginbotham, Jennifer Szalai wrote “Even more egregious than some personnel decisions were the structural problems built into the plant itself…[likened] to wiring a car so that slamming the brakes would make it accelerate”.

Even given that the Chernobyl meltdown stands as the only deadly nuclear accident yet recorded, the total number of deaths that can be attributed to the Chernobyl accident equal the number of people who die every day from burning coal. If we dispassionately consider the risks, nuclear power turns out to be far safer than any form of energy generated by fossil fuels.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), to which Critica co-founder Jack Gorman belongs, was once considered an anti-nuclear energy organization. Yet UCS scientists are now willing to consider that nuclear energy should be considered as part of the solution to the climate crisis. According to Steve Clemmer, the director of energy research and analysis in the UCS Climate and Energy Program, “In an era of hard choices, policies that keep safely operating nuclear plants running while we transition to clean renewable power can be an indispensable tool”.

It should not be so scary to voice an opinion that is disparate from one’s group, especially when that opinion is increasingly shared by experts in the field. Environmentalists clearly must at least consider the possibility that nuclear energy is a way to rapidly decarbonize emissions. Rather than raising innumerable objections, most of which are either myths or can be dealt with, it is time to get nuclear energy on the docket and put in motion whatever is necessary to not only keep existing plants running but to build new generation nuclear energy plants. The climate crisis is our number one emergency and we could employ the cliché that “desperate times call for desperate measures.” The reality, however, is that in the case of nuclear energy, the measure called for appears to be far from desperate and much safer than we have been led to believe.


[1] Some environmentalists now urge us to use the phrase “climate crisis” in place of “climate change” to emphasize that we are not talking about a naturally occurring or gradual process but rather a looming environmental emergency. Critica agrees with that assessment.

[2] Apparently, many of those cancers could have been prevented if the Soviets, instead of trying to cover up the meltdown, had distributed iodine pills to people living near the nuclear plant. That would have prevent many thyroid cancers that will likely occur.


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