Thursday, October 11, 2018

If We’re Going to Save the Planet, We’ve Got to Use the Nuclear Option

A new nuclear reactor under construction in Fangcheng, China. (Credit: VCG via Getty Images) Click to Enlarge.
Good news and bad news arrived this week from the world’s top climate change experts.  Good news:  they can tell us in agonizing detail why the world should really, really keep the rise in global warming to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius.  Bad news:  the 132 authors of the 700-page report offer many ideas but no feasible plan for how to do that.  As the International Panel on Climate Change’s co-chair put it, “One thing the report did not aspire to do is answer the question of feasibility.”  So we can call it the Beach Boys Report ― “Wouldn’t it be nice...”

The 2015 Paris Agreement set an overall goal of staying below 2 degrees Celsius of global warming.  However, the combination of the deal’s country-by-country goals would not accomplish that, and no major country is on track to meet its goals anyway.  The 1.5 degree target is rightly even more ambitious, but also even further from the reality of energy systems in the world today.

In the first part of the 21st century, the fastest-growing energy source was coal.  And energy use is going up rapidly because poor countries want to be richer ― and have a right to be. Climate goals and realities are not converging.

The main mitigation scenarios in the IPCC’s new report depend heavily on wind and solar power.  These are both important parts of a solution, but they are harder and harder to deploy as they constitute more of the power grid.  That’s because the outputs of wind and solar sources vary ― between day and night, between winter and summer, and often unpredictably.  The desperately needed technologies to affordably store such renewable energy are still developing.  Furthermore, renewable energies are diffuse, using large amounts of land, steel and concrete per unit of electricity generated, which makes it harder to expand them at the scale and pace called for by the IPCC’s dire timeline.
 Some countries such as Norway and Uruguay are lucky enough to have vast hydroelectric capacity.  Most nations don’t, and new hydropower comes at enormous cost to ecosystems.

The other decarbonized grids can be found in places that rely on nuclear power, such as France, Sweden, and Ontario, Canada.  Nuclear power is free of carbon pollution; is highly concentrated, which minimizes environmental impacts such as those from mining and waste; and operates 24/7 without needing batteries.  Most importantly, it can scale up rapidly ― exactly what’s needed to bring the IPCC’s goals out of fantasyland.  Based on our analysis of many countries’ experiences, what might take a century to do with renewables alone could be done in 20 years with nuclear power.

Isn’t n-n-nuclear too dangerous, too expensive, too creepy?  Well, no.  It’s thousands of times safer than coal, which kills hundreds of thousands of people each year.  Actually, nuclear power is the safest form of energy ever used, in terms of deaths per unit of energy.

Nuclear also generates far less waste than other energy sources, including renewables.  The spent fuel from a lifetime of electricity use by an average American generated entirely from nuclear power would fit in a soda can.  Someday we’ll bury it, but for now the waste can be left safely in its dry casks, certified for a hundred years, while we attend to bigger issues like saving the planet.

Read more at If We’re Going to Save the Planet, We’ve Got to Use the Nuclear Option

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