As the climate crisis worsens, and the evidence of its destructive impact becomes more vivid, the conflict over how best to address the challenge is throwing more heat than light. A recent article makes the case against a significant role for nuclear power as a carbon free response to the ravages of climate change. But, at the moment nuclear power is one of the world’s most significant zero carbon energy sources. It does not make sense to fight an ideological battle over a technology that can significantly contribute to solving a problem that continues to grow worse.
A recent report makes the frightening case that climate change may significantly impact global food production. This at a time when the world population is projected to grow from 7.7 to 9.7 billion people by 2050. Similar alarms are being raised about how climate change will impact water availability and the global economy. Water availability and temperature are important to the effective operation of existing large reactors and some have been negatively impacted in recent years, taking carbon free power off the electrical grid.
While the rise of renewable energy is very welcome in the contest against climate change, it is currently not capable of supplanting all existing global fossil fuel energy production, nuclear generation, and the significant projected growth of an expanding and electrifying global population and economy. If significant battery storage and grid modifications can be achieved and scaled, that will be a significant positive advancement. But these technologies are not more virtuous than other carbon free generation sources including nuclear power when facing the climate crisis.
There are several significant arguments against nuclear power. Its long-lived waste, cost, and potential for nuclear weapons proliferation are undeniable and perennial problems that have been a struggle to manage. The potential exists for a new generation of reactors to make headway against these issues. And none negate it as an effective pillar in the climate combat strategy.
Also, there is little acknowledged toxic pollution from renewable technology manufacturing. A surprising new movie also makes the case that “green” technologies are not as pure as its makers wanted to believe when they began the project.
And, at least in the case of solar power, the panels need to be replaced at regular intervals. Existing nuclear reactors are in the process of being licensed for up to 60 years of operation and that may be extended to 80 years. Their land mass footprints are also smaller than either solar or wind.
The reality is that there are no easy and completely clean answers to powering the modern world. The growing demand for electricity combined with the impact of global transportation are driving emissions higher. The carbon growth is primarily in developing economy nations that need economic advancement and improvements in living conditions that approach or equal developed nations.
The global effort to curb carbon emissions has been grossly inadequate. There is no virtue in fighting against technologies that can reduce this concentration at a time of extreme need. The real goal is to solve the problem. That will be expensive and all the options have, and likely will continue to receive, subsidization and create toxic waste streams. No technology will be immune from having downsides.
Therefore, it is not realistic to remove nuclear power from the carbon combatting arsenal because, if the target is deep decarbonization by 2050 or even 2100, the battle cannot be won without it. It makes more sense to place practicality above ideology when facing down what many believe is an existential threat to mankind.
Ken Luongo, President, Partnership for Global Security