Nuclear energy, a climate change solution?

 Last week I was fortunate to see a preview of Pandora’s Promise, a documentary on nuclear energy coming out in 2013, followed by a discussion with the filmaker, Robert Stone. His film looks at various scientists and environmentalists who have recently accepted nuclear power as a viable answer to climate change and increasing world energy demand. Prior to this event, I had done some reading on new nuclear technologies in the peer-reviewed literature that shook my worldview. 

There are many reasons to be anti-nuclear power: we don’t know what to do with the waste, nuclear weapon proliferation is too risky, meltdowns are too real, it’s too expensive… For years, these claims convinced me that nuclear was not the way to go, not even worth considering. But then I thought about the relative risks of nuclear. When considered next to renewables, it is hard to see nuclear as clean or safe, but what about fossil fuels?

Thermal energy (oil, coal and gas) currently makes up most of the world’s base-load electricity. These resources fit the bill for large-scale generation: plentiful, dependable and cheap. I’m a big believer in the potential of renewable energy, but we have yet to rely on it for our base-load energy supply. This will require breakthroughs in battery and energy storage technologies, or enormous smart-grid infrastructure like green power superhighways. Is large-scale development of these technologies really viable for both developed and developing countries in the short-term?

Some argue that nuclear is the only viable energy that can replace fossil fuels as our base-load energy today. If you are concerned with climate change, this is something that should be taken seriously and given full considered. Nuclear technologies are in their 4th generation, they reuse fuel and produce a fraction of the waste volume of coal plants, and are highly regulated (compared to, say, oil rigs). According to Stone, all of the nuclear waste left from powering France for 30 years fits inside of a room the size of a basketball court. Think about that footprint in comparison to its equivalent in fossil fuel generation. 

We know nuclear plants emit no carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide or nitrate oxides, but we don’t fully understand the true risks of meltdown or waste storage. What we understand a bit better is the harm of our fossil fuel use, which is detrimental to the climate, environment and human health and can be linked to thousands (if not more) human deaths per year. According to Stone, only 56 people have died from a nuclear plant disaster (Chernobyl) as confirmed by this report from the United Nations.

So, are you willing to consider nuclear? I’m not saying that I’m 100% sold yet, but I do urge everyone to reconsider their stance and read up on the latest information. Realistically speaking, our choices may be limited to fossil fuels, nuclear, or dramatically cutting our energy demand by completely reinventing our lifestyles.

Check out these papers and look up some more:

MIT Energy Initiative, 2011. “The Future of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle.”

EPA’s Nuclear Fact Sheet

Interesting article comparing the human responses to the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

Well, what do you think? Take the poll:

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