Four top climate change scientists have directed a tour de force letter to world environmental groups advising them of an important fact: we cannot stop global warming without nuclear power. The letter comes from Dr. Ken Caldeira, Department of Global Ecology, Carnegie Institution; Dr. Kerry Emanuel, Atmospheric Scientist, MIT; Dr. James Hansen, Columbia University Earth Institute; and Dr. Tom Wigley, Climate Scientist, University of East Anglia and the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
The letter is remarkable for its frank and logical discussion of not only science and policy but also reality and context, commodities that the authors urge their environmental group audience to grasp more of. They state that continued opposition to nuclear power “threatens humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change.” Besides the obvious moral imperative of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions, there is a further moral underpinning to their argument. The developing world will require more electric power to meet the needs of and advance the health and safety of a huge population, and our future generations have every right to that aspiration. In a very cleverly turned sentence, they sum it up this way, “we can only increase energy supply while simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas emissions if new power plants turn away from using the atmosphere as a [GHG] waste dump.”
While renewables like wind, solar and biomass will play a role, it is unrealistic to think those sources will be enough. In the “real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power.”
No energy system is without downside risks, they correctly note. However, numerous systems and advancements make today’s nuclear plants much safer. As a former insider at a nuclear generation company I can vouch for that. Furthermore, spent nuclear fuel can be effectively and safely managed by utilizing efficient consumption and disposal techniques. I would add that it can also be addressed in this country by the federal government stepping up to do what it should have done long ago—proceed with a decision on the Yucca Mountain facility or provide an alternative. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals has weighed in on that issue too by ordering the administration to follow the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and make a decision.
The bottom line is that “quantitative analyses show that risks associated with the expanded use of nuclear energy are orders of magnitude smaller than the risks associated with fossil fuels.” The authors pointedly ask the environmental groups to base their decisions and advocacy on “facts, not on emotions and biases that do not apply to 21st century nuclear technology.”
The letter goes on to say that, “The time has come for those who take the threat of global warming seriously to embrace the development and deployment of safer nuclear power systems” as part of the solution to global warming. We cannot afford, they say, to turn away from nuclear power that has the potential to displace a large fraction of our carbon emissions. In fact, our existing nuclear fleet in the United States has been doing just that for decades. The U.S. Energy Information Agency says that U.S. carbon emissions avoided through nuclear power since 1995 total 11,879 million metric tons. Moreover, numerous studies have shown that lifecycle carbon emissions from nuclear power are comparable to renewable power sources.
The scientists wrap up with the exhortation that “the time has come for a fresh approach to nuclear power in the 21st century” and by asking the environmental groups to “demonstrate [your] real concern about risks from climate change by calling for the development and deployment of advanced nuclear energy.”
At the end of the day, the scientists’ letter is a lesson and exhortation to all of us.
The text of Drs. Caldeira, Emanuel, Hansen, and Wigley letter can be read Here.