Monday, November 4, 2013

Is nuclear power necessary?

Mention nuclear power at a gathering of self-proclaimed environmentalists and you will understand immediately what it is like to actually take a dump in the punch bowl.  Sociologists talk about boundary-maintaining mechanisms—the issues that determine whether or not someone is a member of a group.  Opposition to nuclear power is indeed a boundary-maintaining issue for the vast majority of environmentalists—at least in the English-speaking world—and for many it is the most important one.

These are people who argue that we can make a shift to renewables that in combination with major improvements in energy-efficiency, would allow us to go green.  For over 30 years, I have argued this point of view myself.  But the older I get, the more I worry that we don't have the sociology to pull off such a trick. The biggest problem, of course, is that current economic thinking will not allow us to spend enough money to effect such a big change.  I happen to think that such economic thinking is insane, but since about 98% of working economists are more concerned with debt servicing than a significant rebuild of the planet's infrastructure, it doesn't much matter what people like me think.

In the meantime, the environmental movement has not been able to make much progress in an actual conversion to a green society.  MUCH time has been lost holding conventions, publishing papers, and getting arrested in civil rights-style protests.  And in all this time, the output of carbon emissions has not slowed one whit, the number of successful net-zero habitats is tiny, the overwhelming majority of environmentalists still believe pollution is something we can outlaw, etc.

I am hardly alone in wondering if we still have time to build the green future we imagined.  When James Hansen was on Letterman, David asked him point blank if he didn't think it was already too late to do anything about climate change.  Hansen bailed on him and put on a happy face, but we know that Hansen can count and knows that at the current rates of green reform and renewal, it IS already too late.  So it was not especially surprising that Hansen is one of the big name scientists who has asked the environmental movement to drop their opposition to nuclear power.

I can almost hear the screams of protests.  I mean, I know environmentalists who know only two things—clubbing baby seals to death is wrong and nuclear power is out of the question, but they're open to compromise on those cute little seals.

Top US climate scientists support development of safe nuclear power

Open letter to environmentalists and world leaders says wind and solar power are not enough to diminish carbon emissions, Sunday 3 November 2013

Some of the world's top climate scientists say wind and solar energy won't be enough to head off extreme global warming, and they're asking environmentalists to support the development of safer nuclear power as one way to cut fossil fuel pollution.

Four scientists who have played a key role in alerting the public to the dangers of climate change sent letters Sunday to leading environmental groups and politicians around the world. The letter, an advance copy of which was given to the Associated Press, urges a crucial discussion on the role of nuclear power in fighting climate change.

The letter signers are James Hansen, a former top NASA scientist; Ken Caldeira, of the Carnegie Institution; Kerry Emanuel, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Tom Wigley, of the University of Adelaide in Australia.

Environmentalists agree that global warming is a threat to ecosystems and humans, but many oppose nuclear power and believe that new forms of renewable energy will be able to power the world within the next few decades. That isn't realistic, the letter said.

"Those energy sources cannot scale up fast enough" to deliver the amount of cheap and reliable power the world needs, and "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 reduce greenhouse gases.

Hansen began publishing research on the threat of global warming more than 30 years ago, and his testimony before Congress in 1988 helped launch a mainstream discussion. Last February he was arrested in front of the White House at a climate protest that included the head of the Sierra Club and other activists.

Caldeira was a contributor to reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Emanuel is known for his research on possible links between climate change and hurricanes, and Wigley has also been doing climate research for more than three decades.

Emanuel said the signers aren't opposed to renewable energy sources but want environmentalists to understand that "realistically, they cannot on their own solve the world's energy problems."

The vast majority of climate scientists say they're now virtually certain that pollution from fossil fuels has increased global temperatures over the last 60 years. They say emissions need to be sharply reduced to prevent more extreme damage in the future.

In 2011 worldwide carbon dioxide emissions jumped 3%, because of a large increase by China, the world's most carbon polluting country. The US is second in carbon emissions.

Hansen, who's now at Columbia University, said it's not enough for environmentalists to simply oppose fossil fuels and promote renewable energy.

"They're cheating themselves if they keep believing this fiction that all we need" is renewable energy such as wind and solar, Hansen told the AP.

The joint letter says, "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 part of efforts to build a new global energy supply.

Stephen Ansolabehere, a Harvard professor who studies energy issues, said nuclear power is "very divisive" within the environmental movement. But he added that the letter could help educate the public about the difficult choices that climate change presents.

One major environmental advocacy organization, the Natural Resources Defense Council, warned that "nuclear power is no panacea for our climate woes."

Risk of catastrophe is only one drawback of nuclear power, NRDC President Frances Beinecke said in a statement. Waste storage and security of nuclear material are also important issues, he said.

"The better path is to clean up our power plants and invest in efficiency and renewable energy."

The scientists acknowledge that there are risks to using nuclear power, but say those are far smaller than the risk posed by extreme climate change.

"We understand that today's nuclear plants are far from perfect." more

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