An open letter by leading climate scientists, Ken Caldeira, Kerry Emanuel, James Hansen and Tom Wigley calling on green groups to stop opposing nuclear power:
To those influencing environmental policy but opposed to nuclear power:
As climate and energy scientists concerned with global climate change, we are writing to urge you to advocate the development and deployment of safer nuclear energy systems. We appreciate your organization’s concern about global warming, and your advocacy of renewable energy. But continued opposition to nuclear power threatens humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change.
We call on your organization to support the development and deployment of safer nuclear power systems as a practical means of addressing the climate change problem. Global demand for energy is growing rapidly and must continue to grow to provide the needs of developing economies. At the same time, the need to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions is becoming ever clearer. We can only increase energy supply while simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas emissions if new power plants turn away from using the atmosphere as a waste dump.
Renewables like wind and solar and biomass will certainly play roles in a future energy economy, but those energy sources cannot scale up fast enough to deliver cheap and reliable power at the scale the global economy requires. While it may be theoretically possible to stabilize the climate without nuclear power, in the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power
We understand that today’s nuclear plants are far from perfect. Fortunately, passive safety systems and other advances can make new plants much safer. And modern nuclear technology can reduce proliferation risks and solve the waste disposal problem by burning current waste and using fuel more efficiently. Innovation and economies of scale can make new power plants even cheaper than existing plants. Regardless of these advantages, nuclear needs to be encouraged based on its societal benefits.
Quantitative analyses show that the risks associated with the expanded use of nuclear energy are orders of magnitude smaller than the risks associated with fossil fuels. No energy system is without downsides. We ask only that energy system decisions be based on facts, and not on emotions and biases that do not apply to 21st century nuclear technology.
While there will be no single technological silver bullet, 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 one among several technologies that will be essential to any credible effort to develop an energy system that does not rely on using the atmosphere as a waste dump.
With the planet warming and carbon dioxide emissions rising faster than ever, we cannot afford to turn away from any technology that has the potential to displace a large fraction of our carbon emissions. Much has changed since the 1970s. The time has come for a fresh approach to nuclear power in the 21st century.
We ask you and your organization to demonstrate its real concern about risks from climate damage by calling for the development and deployment of advanced nuclear energy.
Dr. Ken Caldeira, Senior Scientist, Department of Global Ecology, Carnegie Institution
Dr. Kerry Emanuel, Atmospheric Scientist, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Dr. James Hansen, Climate Scientist, Columbia University Earth Institute
Dr. Tom Wigley, Climate Scientist, University of East Anglia and the National Center for Atmospheric Research
Tackling objections in detail as opposed to “it’s all good”/”it’s all bad” might be helpful.
Long term waste disposal seems a major sticking point for a lot of people, leaving aside short term, insane choices such as storing spent fuel high in the air on top of reactor vessels so as to save plumbing and thus money.
Borehole disposal seems intriguing as it addresses a number of issues to do w/accessibility, migration, etc.
Also, the irony of using technology developed for the petroleum industry in order to help end the combustion part of the petroleum industry is pleasing.
A handy synopsis on borehole disposal:
Deep Borehole Disposal of Spent Nuclear Fuel and High-Level Waste
Borehold disposal is irretrievable, but has the Titanic demonstrability of fail-safeness in its favour: whatever vessels are put down the holes, if they leak, will have a similar task before them, if they are to pollute the strata above them with radioactivity, as saltshakers in the Titanic would have if they were to try, so to speak, to oversalt the ocean.
Breeder reactors are an interesting solution to the nuclear waste problem. Aside from being much more efficient (thus needing less nuclear fuel and producing less waste) the waste they do produce has a much shorter half-life. On top of that at least some of the current nuclear waste we have could be used as fuel for these reactors, this making our current waste problem less of an issue.
But ultimately the risks associated with nuclear power (and nuclear waste) are far less than the risks of unmitigated climate change. For the reason alone nuclear power deserves to be on the table.
The one potential wrinkle is the cost of nuclear power. It isn’t cheap and it is getting more expensive, while at the same time wind and solar are getting cheaper (though the infrastructure needed to rely on intermittent power sources is still expensive).
I’m not convinced this is the one potential wrinkle.
I’ve expressed my hope previously that there would be an in-depth discussion of nuclear power between people who I can trust to at least attempt to be objective, so I hope this might provide that opportunity.
I’m genuinely unsure about nuclear, though I will admit that I have at least some reservations based on the ‘scale’ of the technology – there is a sense of it being outside of my (perhaps what I mean is more like ‘a single human’s’) control. A more concrete way of expressing this concern is perhaps to ask what would happen to nuclear facilities in an unstable future society. I’m reasonably confident that we can ensure enough safety measures are in place that current generation from nuclear power stations is indeed about as safe, statistically, as any energy source. However I don’t know how much that depends on continued high levels of maintenance and technical know-how. Would we be bequeathing an additional burdensome challenge to a future society that may already be struggling with our legacy? Similarly, how realistic is it to expect to have safe nuclear power in fragile states now?
And yes, there’s the cost.
Are KC, KE, JH and TW right to say “there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power”? Is credibility defined by cost, or independent of it? I thought there were credible but expensive nuclear-free or nuclear-lite paths. Are they really that much more expensive than a nuclear path? (I’m assuming that we can more or less accept that any path is cheaper than the fossil-fuelled one.)
This is a legitimate concern but I think it is being dealt with with in newer reactor designs. Specifically something called walkaway safety where by design reactors can be completely abandoned and without any human intervention they will safely shutdown. Obviously this is an over simplification though.
But even if walkaway safety doesn’t pan out very well I still come back to the fact that the risks of nuclear power are less and more manageable than the risks of unmitigated climate change.
Somewhat along the lines of OPatrick, I think it would be very helpful and is possibly mandatory to exploit nuclear power for at least some period of time while we sort out the coal substitution problem in a more elegant way. My problem with doing so is along the lines of what OPatrick talks about, namely human nature. Let alone exciting things such as social unrest, power generation reactors are subject to the more mundane problems of boredom, sloth, indolence, greed and failed imagination. Read NRC reports for details on the many things routinely found rusting, broken or otherwise variously unattended during excessively routine reactor operations. Reactor designers and authors of operations manuals cannot conceive of the many ways we invent to cut corners, catch an extra smoke break, save a little on fixed and variable costs.
Then there are the implementation collisions with human nature, as exemplified most recently by Fukushima. and its many absurdly optimistic and thus entirely human features. We tend to think of implementation failures as exceptional but they’re not; compromised designs and construction are part of human nature.
Part of the general discomfort with these machines may be down to tacit recognition that in all of our proud talk of technical prowess and appeals to rational reasoning for why there’s nothing wrong with reactors, we actually know in our hearts that we’re a collection of advanced but fundamentally unreliable monkeys. The reactors are not the problem, we are, and we’re not something that can be designed out.
We have some rough statistics on how many messes per operating reactor we create. I think it would be helpful to find a way of calmly acknowledging and communicating that for every N reactors, we’re going to end up with X more or less permanently smoking holes in the ground. Doing so would allow us to adopt more aggressive approaches to developing remediation techniques before they’re required, as opposed to hastily trying to build remediation on the fly and in nearly impossible conditions, such as at Fukushima.
Insistence on generating a uniformly positive glow around nuclear power generation clearly isn’t working. Recognizing and loudly accounting for warts could actually have the same desired effect as what we wish would work by sweeping things under the rug.
Why do we need to continue to play with fire when we keep getting burned? I believe Einstein defined this as insanity, and I for one happen to agree. About the only reason I can see is profit motive and that isn’t of much significance when contrasted to the high stress and long term(hundreds if not thousands of years of) problems endemic with this deeply flawed technology. Ultimately this will be seen as a terrible mistake(not suprisingly the german people are taking this view) and alternatives will perforce be developed. In the meantime the proliferation of radiation and the attendent horrific consequences will be whtewashed, and hopefully, the lies will not stop the eventual realization of what a mistake(at its current crude state) this technology is.