Climate scientists enter the nuclear codes

Were eminent climate scientists James Hansen, Tom Wrigley and co right this week when they declared the world had left it too late to avoiding making nuclear a part of the climate solution?


Four of the world’s leading climate scientists have published an open letter “to those influencing environmental policy” stating that wind and solar energy simply won’t be enough to halt the slide of global warming, and they’re asking environmentalists to support the growth of safe nuclear energy as a means to weaning society off its reliance upon fossil fuels. 

The letter was written by Dr Ken Caldeira, a senior scientist in the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution, Dr Kerry Emanuel, an atmospheric scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr James Hansen, a renowned climate scientist at the Columbia University Earth Institute, and Australian Dr Tom Wigley, a climate scientist from the University of Adelaide and the US National Center for Atmospheric Research.

“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,” they write, adding that “continued opposition to nuclear power threatens humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change.”

Their case is a strong one, made not least because of their reputations and qualifications. The development of wind and solar energy as alternative energy solutions has been a central tenant of CleanTechnica’s coverage over the past few years, not to mention a significant driver of industry in countries like China, Japan, India, Germany, and the United States.

In the US alone, both wind and solar have continued to make huge strides. A recent report by the EPA showed that wind energy has dramatically cut global warming pollution in the US. While recent numbers released by NPD Solarbuzz at the beginning of October showed solar PV installations reaching a record high of 9GW for Q3’2013.

It’s all good growth – good development, installation, publicity, public and political support. But as the authors of the letter note, “renewables like wind and solar and biomass” simply “cannot scale up fast enough to deliver cheap and reliable power at the scale the global economy requires” in time to make a significant impact on the rising global temperature.

“While it may be theoretically possible to stabilise the climate without nuclear power, in the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilisation that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power.”

The author’s are quick and repetitive in their need to reassure the intended recipients that the need for nuclear is a need for ‘safe’ nuclear, calling for “the development and deployment of safer nuclear power systems” and acknowledging 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.”

The call for an alternate solution to a carbon-heavy energy system is obvious. For several years now, politicians, energy advocates, and those like myself have repeatedly called for a focus on renewable energy. Not only does it benefit the environment and wean us off our reliance upon atmospheric-destroying fossil fuels, but it’s arrival on the industrial scene has meant it is an economically sound and beneficial solution, allowing many companies around the world – not to mention thousands of homeowners – to divest themselves from the utility monopoly.

The call came too late, however, and with 2020 nearing ever closer and a 2- to 3-degrees Celsius increase over industrial revolution temperatures looms on the horizon, growing ever large. Despite the press dedicated to wind and solar’s growth, it is all relative – the growth is impressive, but it is nowhere near what is needed to banish fossil fuel-driven energy.

“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,” the authors note. “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.”

The authors are well aware of the spectre of nuclear disasters, but are clear in sidelining those fears where they belong: “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.”

In the end, it is public calls for action such as this letter – available to read in full here – that will spark public interest and create political dialogue. The key is to not allow these public calls to be sidelined as inconvenient.

EDIS: The cost of nuclear - revealed, October 30.

Originally published by CleanTechnica. Reproduced with permission.

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