As a proponent of the use of base load nuclear power to replace coal, plant by plant, in response to climate change, I am utterly used to quick, single-word dismissals by the “100 percent renewable” crowd — otherwise, generally my crowd. In response, I can offer this for consideration: In the the U.S. we have produced 20 percent of our electricity using nuclear energy for half a century without a casualty.
At COP21 in Paris, as activists paraded through the streets, they chanted, “100 percent renewables” with fervor, and at every opportunity their leaders spoke the phrase to the media.
My heart sank as I watched them on TV. It apparently was decided without debate or simply supposed that nuclear power would not be used to cut CO2 emissions.
Most of my activist colleagues came to political awareness amid the anti-nuclear fervor of the 1980s, so this key issue was long decided in their minds and felt as tiresome. But James Hansen, the 1988 global warming alarm-ringer, has been adamantly pro-nuclear since the early 2000s. Nevertheless, when I’ve cited his analysis in discussions with renewables proponents, they dismiss it with one or two of those groupthink words.
At COP21, Hansen and three other leading climate scientists gave a long-planned and impassioned news conference adamantly advocating that nuclear power be “part of the mix” to decarbonize the fossil fuel electrical system. Their news conference was barely reported by the (liberal) news media in the United States. But these four scientists had plain and compelling remarks that we can’t afford to ignore.
Ken Caldeira of Stanford University’s Department of Global Ecology: “There’s really only one technology that we know of that supplies carbon-free power at the scale modern civilization requires, and that is nuclear power … . Let’s focus on the climate agenda … and take on supplying energy in a way that provides food and health care and education worldwide with carbon-free energy systems.”
Kerry Emanuel, professor of atmospheric science at MIT: “Unless a miracle occurs, we are going to have to rev up nuclear power very fast. We know this because we’re scientists and we can do the math. Whatever combination works, but the numbers don’t add up unless you put nuclear power in the mix.”
Tom Wigley, professor of climatology at Australia’s University of Adelaide: “Make sure we don’t just look for a renewable energy target, but for a clean energy target. That’s the primary concern of this particular meeting.”
Hansen, a climate scientist at NASA: “It’s absolutely 100 percent certain that we’ve got a very dangerous situation staring us in the face … instability of ice sheets and sea level rise of several meters, and extreme weather. For us to say, ‘Oh, we’re not going to use all the tools that we have to try to solve it,’ is crazy. Clearly nuclear power, next-generation nuclear power especially, has tremendous potential to be a big part of the solution … . China and India are using vastly increasing amounts of power, almost all coal, and there’s no way that they can power their new steel mills and all their other new factories on solar panels. And they know tha … . They’re stuck, and they want to get wealthy, they want to raise people out of poverty, and you can’t do it without lots of new energy. So if they don’t have an alternative, they’re going to burn coal. We should be helping them to find a clean alternative, especially since we have a very strong culture of nuclear safety in the United States … . Sweden took 10 years to build their nuclear power plants, and then combined them with hydropower. So, renewable energy plus nuclear energy has provided them with carbon-free electricity, and that’s what is needed.”
The compelling technological argument for using nuclear energy is supplemented by an equally compelling political opportunity it creates: We need majorities in Congress to get a full-bore program instituted to build out renewables and nuclear. We need Republicans.
Franklin Roosevelt brought Republicans into his administration in May 1941, after he declared an unlimited national emergency the day the Nazis finally invaded France. He brought on Republican Henry Stimson as secretary of war, and he later relied on extreme right-wing isolationist Henry Ford (building B-24 Liberators, heavy bombers, at Willow Run, one an hour).
Republicans are all pro-nuclear! Try asking one on the street. You get none of the single-word dismissals, but enthusiasm. Nuclear power would bring the two parties together for a deal: to create a vast crash program using renewables and nuclear, using all sectors of our economy and of our political establishment — left and right — to address the extreme national emergency approaching us.
Tom Staley of Bangor is an artist and printmaker.