The idea we might need nuclear power to save biodiversity from the effects of climate change is one that could not have been foreseen thirty years ago, at the height of the anti-nuclear movement. But it’s an idea that more and more scientists of all stripes as well as energy experts and even environmentalists are coming to share.
Last year, 75 biodiversity scientists published an open letter imploring policy-makers to rethink “idealistic” opposition to nuclear energy, given the threats to global ecosystems set in motion by climate change. The scientists said despite “idealistic perceptions of what is ‘green,’”nuclear power was likely to be necessary for moving beyond fossil fuels.
This open letter followed in the wake of another letter published two years ago in the New York Times by climate scientists with a similar message: “there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power.”
These scientists who study the earth and the life on it are concerned it is too risky to rely solely on wind, solar and other so-called “green” power to replace fossil fuels, which are still the fastest growing energy sources by a long shot. As these scientists point out, renewable power sources would require enormous amounts of land, materials, and money to meet the world’s current and growing energy needs.
Wind and solar power are especially problematic because they are intermittent and can’t be dispatched to match demand. While the quest is on for grid storage options, there has not been a significant storage breakthrough since the lithium ion battery. In the meantime other power sources that can run full time are required to take up the slack. Options for doing so are limited to fossil fuels, biomass that is comparatively bulky and limited in scale, hydro power that is largely tapped out in some places, and nuclear power.
The advantage of nuclear power is it can be built almost anywhere and is the most efficient form of power generation, taking into account land use, materials, carbon footprint, and fuel density. But as a complex technology, it is pricey to build. So in an era of cheap coal and gas, liberalized energy markets, cash-strapped governments, and hyped-up renewables, few nuclear power plants have been constructed of late in the Western world. Experienced work forces who can put them up quickly have become hard to assemble on the fly.
These patterns can be altered, though, as people realize once nuclear plants are up they can churn out steady carbon-free power for over half a century. History has shown the most effective way to replace fossil fuel power over a decade is to build up nuclear. Ontarians, who rely on nuclear plants to deliver roughly two-thirds of our power every day, and have become coal-free, know this. So do the people of France, where nuclear energy supplies 75% of power needs.
Moreover, once the nuclear plants are built, the power they provide is typically quite cheap. In the US, electricity from existing nuclear power is the second cheapest after hydro. France has among the lowest electricity rates in Europe.
But what about safety? The meltdown at Fukushima after the Japanese tsunami in 2011 has gripped the world. Yet no one has died from that meltdown, and the World Health Organization anticipates no uptick in associated deaths will occur. The radiation released in the meltdown was simply not that significant and continues not to be. Unlike chemical waste, radioactive isotopes decay as well as dilute in nature, where they are naturally occurring.
By contrast, a million people die every year of health problems caused by the pollution from coal. A dam break in China in 1971 killed over a hundred thousand people. Rare earth mining for solar panel construction, wind turbine magnets and lithium batteries is poisoning parts of inner Mongolia.
Energy runs our world, keeping us comfortable, healthy, employed, and entertained. There is no absolutely risk-free, pollution free way to generate it, as James Conca has pointed out in a well-circulated article in Forbes, How Deadly is Your Kilowatt. Over its lifetime, Conca points out, “Nuclear has the lowest deathprint” relative to the amount of energy it produces. In coming years we are going to see the construction of even safer meltdown-proof nuclear reactors in China.
Choosing to build more nuclear power plants is going to require a mental shift for a lot of people. Its three significant accidents over sixty years have been easy to sensationalize in comparison with the slow blight of coal power and the shortfalls of renewables. But new situations require new ways of thinking. Saving the earth’s diverse creatures from the deadly effects of climate change is going to require the most powerful and advanced technologies humans have at our disposal.
Previously published on EnergyForHumanity.org.