Nuclear Power Is Crucial to Phasing Out Carbon Emissions
Third Way: Nuclear Reimagined
- Sep 11, 2019 5:06 pm GMT
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By 2050, energy demand of developing countries will exceed total energy demand of OECD countries. Access to abundant clean energy will facilitate rapid economic growth in the developing world, and with it plummeting maternal and infant mortality, billions lifted out of extreme poverty, and 15 years added to the average lifespan of sub-Saharan Africans. Advances in food production will intensify crop yields and improve distribution. And the US and a handful of other world powers will lead the way for continued innovation in clean energy technology and accessibility.
This is of course the ideal scenario. In thirty years’ time, we can only hope to have reduced and nearly mitigated the climate crisis using the same technologies that solved poverty and made pollution of the environment a non-issue. Right now, this ideal seems hopelessly out of reach. And it is, unless we decide to embrace the one source of energy that can ensure our efforts do not go to waste: nuclear power.
This seems like a bold statement. But it does not mean abandoning all other technologies in favor of 100% nuclear everywhere. And it does not mean that nuclear power is the only solution that works. It means, simply, that if we look to history to tell us what has worked the best to bring us closer to our ideal of universal clean energy access, nuclear power is the only source of non-emitting energy generation that has been able to rapidly meet large scale energy needs.
The extreme energy density of uranium fuel makes it the largest source of clean energy in the U.S. The U.S. avoided more than 14 billion metric tons of CO2 emissions between 1995 and 2016 from using nuclear power, the equivalent of removing three billion cars from the road (NEI). Nuclear reactors provided 56% of domestic clean electricity and 19% of total electricity in 2017 (United States Department of Energy). By comparison, renewable energy sources (solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, and biomass combined) provided 11% of total U.S. electricity consumption in 2017 (United States Energy Information Administration).
Nuclear power provided 8.1% of world electricity production in 2015; at its peak in 1996, it provided 17.6% of world electricity production (WorldBank).
Within two decades of beginning its nuclear power program, Sweden had displaced over half of its fossil fuel use with new nuclear capacity (Qvist & Brook, 2015).
In France, a successful transition to 80% nuclear power between 1980 and 1987 rolled back the country’s emissions to 1960s levels. While energy consumption increased by 46% during this time period, emissions dropped 28.4% from 134 million tons per year to 96 million tons per year. The French scenario is the only example of a major energy-producing country meeting Kyoto Protocol requirements.
And after six decades of global nuclear power operation, less than 1,000 deaths can be attributed to radiation or accidents (the most conservative estimate), while the technology has spared over one million lives from avoided air pollution alone (Kharecha and Hansen, 2013).
Advanced reactor designs currently in development will further propel the ability of nuclear reactors to serve remote areas, operate more safely than ever, and achieve economies of scale, as utilities can fabricate them on an assembly line rather than on-site at a large generating station.
Leading environmental organizations tell us to expect the worst and hope for the best — yet they do not advocate for expansion of nuclear energy because it is unpopular among the environmental community. This was the old paradigm; now is the time to rethink what matters to us. Climate change will not wait for us to make up our minds about how to proceed with an energy transition.
Shifting into a new paradigm means coming face to face with the urgency of what is happening, and using every resource available to combat it. It means abandoning the way we used to think about our problems, about our children’s future, and about our own destructive capabilities as a species when it comes to nuclear power. In an era of the past, we feared pollution and radioactive contamination. Because of that fear, we stopped building nuclear reactors in the 1970s, and halted an upward trajectory in learning curves and development that could have guaranteed the production of enough generating capacity to serve the globe ten-fold (Lang et al, 2017).
So we can continue to let our disagreements over the minutiae of each and every energy source stall progress, but the developing world will still require ten times the energy it has today in a matter of three decades. And clean energy generation will need to make up a vast share, if not all of this new capacity in order to prevent rising global temperatures.
Problem solving is not about agreeing on everything. Problem solving is about making the tough decision to loosen our tight grip on what divides us in order to focus on what we need most: a semblance of progress and forward momentum. Nuclear power is able to meet the basic requirements for an energy system that provides energy for all, at minimal cost to the environment. We simply cannot afford, intentionally or unintentionally, to forget about it.