Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Saturday, January 20, 2018

Op-ed: Let’s get realistic with nuclear power

Too often, environmentalists’ fervent calls for clean energy are matched only by their rejection of it

Op-ed: Let’s get realistic with nuclear power

It’s no time to mince words. The world faces a climate crisis. All available measurements point to the much feared 2 degrees Celsius increase in average global temperatures as a very real possibility, and we are barreling toward a so-called “point of no return” for CO2 emissions.

Greenhouse gas emissions need to be cut, and they need to be cut fast. In fact, research commissioned by the White House estimates that among other countries, the United States needs to reduce its emissions by 80 percent of its 2009 levels before 2050 in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

And it’s needless to say that those worst effects are very grim indeed. We face displacement of 500 million people, extinction of 40 percent of living species, subjection of one-sixth of the world’s population to a lack of drinking water, reductions of 80 percent of crops in sub-Saharan Africa and loss of five to 20 percent of the global economy every year, just to name a few highlights.

So one would expect that those who care deeply about preserving the environment would advocate that we take every measure within our grasp to avoid such a dreadful future. However, a troubling proportion of the environmentalist movement is unrealistic. We are too late to be picky with energy; there are a number of admittedly non-perfect energy sources that represent perhaps the best opportunity to reduce emissions. The most prominent among them: nuclear power.

Nuclear energy is an incredibly promising resource with an already excellent climate track record. The speediest drop in carbon emissions from any country in history happened when France adopted nuclear electricity, reducing emissions by 2 percent a year.

NASA estimates that nuclear energy has offset 65 billion tons of CO2 emissions worldwide and saved 1.8 million lives in the process. Indeed, the IPCC has determined nuclear energy to have the lowest carbon emissions of any so-called “base load” energy sources. Some research estimates that avoiding a two degrees Celsius increase without nuclear wouldn’t just be difficult, but downright impossible.

Columbia University climatologist James Hansen, the father of the anti-climate-change movement, has said “Nuclear [power], especially next-generation nuclear [power], has tremendous potential to be part of the solution to climate change...To say we won't use all the tools to solve the problem is crazy.”

Unfortunately, there is a large contingent of the environmentalist movement that is, to use Hansen’s phrase, “crazy.” Opponents of nuclear power include Greenpeace, the Natural Resource Defense Council and the Sierra Club.

It is important to note the actors here. There is one key difference separating pro-nuclear environmentalists (James Hansen, the IPCC, NASA, etc.) from anti-nuclear activists: only the former are scientists. For every picket sign Greenpeace can raise against nuclear power, NASA has two Ph.D.’s it can throw back. With a credibility divide so stark, it should be no surprise that all of the common objections lobbed against the strongest clean energy source are usually nothing but canards.

It is said that nuclear energy is dangerous, a claim that is aided by dramatic stories of Fukushima, Three-Mile Island and Chernobyl. However, if we prefer facts over intuition, it is easy to find that nuclear energy is very safe. The three accidents listed above are the only major nuclear plant accidents in human history.

All other forms of energy are much more dangerous. A 2011 study from the British University of Bath found that coal is responsible for five times as many worker deaths from accidents, 470 times as many deaths due to air pollution among members of the public, and more than 1,000 times as many cases of serious illness. Indeed, just this November, a coal plant in China exploded, killing twice as many people as either the blast or radiation from Chernobyl.

And it’s also absurd to suggest that a nuclear power plant could explode as a kind of accidental atomic bomb. Energy-grade uranium is enriched to five percent, far below the 90 percent necessary for weapons. Once again, this is nothing more than uninformed fear mongering. Finally, it is also said that nuclear energy is simply infeasible. But this is overly-pessimistic at best. Conservative estimates find that the world’s fossil fuel electricity could be replaced by nuclear power in as little as 25 years.

With all this said, I repeat that nuclear energy is not perfect. Uranium and plutonium require mining beforehand, storage afterward and a great deal of water to cool them in the meantime. But we must look at energy issues as a cost-benefit analysis.

A catastrophe of truly unprecedented proportions is looming unless the world seriously reduces emissions. Nuclear energy does so. It is imperative that we “use all the tools” to solve this problem.

Bobby Zitzmann is a freshman in the School of International Service.

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