In their op-ed “Only Nuclear Energy Save the Planet,” I think Joshua Goldstein and Staffan Qvist underestimate how quickly solar energy can ramp up if it becomes dramatically cheaper (including becoming dramatically cheaper to install, say by solar collectors that are thin, flexible sheets). Nevertheless, the numbers they point to are daunting:
Any serious effort to decarbonize the world economy will require, then, a great deal more clean energy, on the order of 100 trillion kilowatt-hours per year, by our calculations—roughly equivalent to today’s entire annual fossil-fuel usage. A key variable is speed. To reach the target within three decades, the world would have to add about 3.3 trillion more kilowatt-hours of clean energy every year.
Solar and wind power alone can’t scale up fast enough to generate the vast amounts of electricity that will be needed by midcentury, especially as we convert car engines and the like from fossil fuels to carbon-free energy sources. Even Germany’s concerted recent effort to add renewables—the most ambitious national effort so far—was nowhere near fast enough. A global increase in renewables at a rate matching Germany’s peak success would add about 0.7 trillion kilowatt-hours of clean electricity every year. That’s just over a fifth of the necessary 3.3 trillion annual target.
In any case, why not use more nuclear energy? Joshua and Staffan claim:
… most countries’ policies are shaped not by hard facts but by long-standing and widely shared phobias about radiation.
Here is how they back that up:
1. Other power sources have been more dangerous than nuclear power:
Over six decades, nuclear power has experienced only one fatal accident, Chernobyl in 1986, which directly caused about 60 deaths and is blamed for thousands more over time from low-level radiation. That’s a serious accident, but other nonnuclear industrial accidents have been worse. A hydroelectric dam failure in China in 1975 killed tens of thousands, and the 1984 Bhopal gas leak at a Union Carbide plant in India killed 4,000 initially and an estimated 15,000 more over time. We don’t stigmatize those entire industries as a result.
The 1979 accident at Three Mile Island killed no one. In Japan in 2011, the fourth largest earthquake in recorded history and a 50-foot tsunami together took almost 20,000 lives—and damaged the Fukushima nuclear facility, which leaked radiation. Exposure during the incident contributed to one worker’s 2016 death, according to the Japanese government; the badly handled evacuation of the area, by contrast, is blamed for much hardship and many deaths.
2. Outside of the context of nuclear energy, people’s aversion to radiation is modest, as indicated for example by their willingness to live at high altitudes (as I do in Colorado) or fly in planes:
… we all walk around in a soup of background radiation, giving us an average of about 3 millisieverts (mSv) per year but ranging up to 200 in some places, with no demonstrated harm.
3. Nuclear waste is overrated as a problem:
An American’s entire lifetime of electricity use powered by nuclear energy would produce an amount of long-term waste that fits in a soda can. All spent fuel from U.S. reactors over the past 60 years would fit on a football field, stacked 20 feet high. Today we store spent fuel at reactor sites in concrete casks (radiation does not escape the concrete) that will be safe for a hundred years. After that, the waste can be burned in reactors that are currently being designed, or it can be buried permanently.
4. New kinds of nuclear reactors will be better.
Joshua and Staffan emphasize how nuclear energy can be made cheaper with better, more appropriate regulation and mass production of nuclear energy plants. But new forms of nuclear power are also likely to be safer and to better deal with the problem of nuclear waste. See the post “Is Nuclear Energy Safe? Well, Which One?” The standstill in building civilian nuclear power plants in the US means that we only have old nuclear power plants outside the military, so our image of nuclear power plants is of the old dinosaur nuclear power plants.
The emotions surrounding nuclear power are great enough, I suspect many people are afraid to say nice things about nuclear power. For our planet, this is a much, much more damaging form of political correctness than many other forms of political correctness that people worry about. We need more people in the intersection of the sets of people who (a) do not deny the reality of global warming and the value of doing something about global warming and (b) know basic facts about nuclear power like those above, and (c) say every nice thing about nuclear power that they believe to be true.