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Scientists Who Believe in Climate Change Pen Pro-Nuclear Power Letter to Environmentalists

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A recent letter from four top U.S. scientists to environmental groups argued that renewable energy will not be sufficient to meet future needs. It suggests an emphasis on safe nuclear power is necessary.  

The letter was signed by 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, whom the AP notes, “have played a key role in alerting the public to the dangers of climate change.”  While renewable energy sources such as solar and wind are key to the future of energy, the scientists believe firmly that nuclear power must be part of the strategy.  

The letter states:

To those influencing environmental policy but opposed to nuclear power:

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. We appreciate your organization’s concern about global warming, and your advocacy of renewable energy. But continued opposition to nuclear power threatens humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change.

We call on your organization to support the development and deployment of safer nuclear power systems as a practical means of addressing the climate change problem. Global demand for energy is growing rapidly and must continue to grow to provide the needs of developing economies. At the same time, the need to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions is becoming ever clearer. We can only increase energy supply while simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas emissions if new power plants turn away from using the atmosphere as a waste dump.

Renewables like wind and solar and biomass will certainly play roles in a future energy economy, but those energy sources cannot scale up fast enough to deliver cheap and reliable power at the scale the global economy requires. While it may be theoretically possible to stabilize the climate without nuclear power, in the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power

We understand 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. Regardless of these advantages, nuclear needs to be encouraged based on its societal benefits.

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. No energy system is without downsides. We ask only that energy system decisions be based on facts, and not on emotions and biases that do not apply to 21st century nuclear technology.

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.

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. Much has changed since the 1970s. The time has come for a fresh approach to nuclear power in the 21st century.

We ask you and your organization to demonstrate its real concern about risks from climate damage by calling for the development and deployment of advanced nuclear energy.

As evidenced by the fourth paragraph, the letter takes into consideration the known and unknown damages to the environment caused by the disaster at Fukushima.  Despite this, the foursome believes nuclear energy remains a safe option that is becoming safer as technology advances.  

The Wall Street Journal recently touched on the economics of nuclear energy noting that long construction times, expensive technology and safety precautions make it a more expensive option than fossil fuels:

Nuclear’s estimated capital costs are $5,429 per kilowatt—before interest charges. That compares with $2,883 for coal, $3,718 for coal-gasification, and $5,138 for coal with carbon sequestration—a technology so expensive the industry says it isn’t a viable option to meet new environmental standards.

Writer Keith Johnson laid out some potential solutions for this problem:

One obvious way to make nuclear power (and renewables) more competitive would be to put a price tag on carbon pollution, such as a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade program. Since nuclear produces no greenhouse gases, it could become the biggest potential source of zero-carbon electricity.

Streamlining the licensing and permitting process could reduce costs. However, concerns about safety and potential vulnerabilities would make it hard for regulators to reduce their investigation into plants’ design specifications and abilities to withstand earthquakes, floods or terrorist attacks.

Proposals for smaller, modular reactors—from less than one-tenth to one-third the size of a traditional reactor—could speed construction, reducing costs and financial risk. SMRs, as they’re known, would be built using modular components made in factories and shipped to the site. Promoters hope that process would bring economies of scale to a business where few have existed.
So far, though, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission hasn’t certified any SMR, and some critics say it could take years for the industry to scale up and bring per-kilowatt costs below what the big plants cost.

Meanwhile, several states now let utilities charge customers in advance for power-plant construction costs. Such payments, attached to utility bills, shave interest charges off a project and lower cost. Critics, however, say it shifts risk away from utilities and onto customers.

The future of nuclear power use is a hot-button topic among environmentalists as the negative effects of the Fukushima meltdown continue to come to light.  Still, leading scientists understand and promote nuclear power’s importance to energy initiatives moving forward.  You don’t have to be a climate change denier to recognize the success of the energy sector relies on diverse sources and an open mind.


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