“(Climate change) is along with the prevention of nuclear war the greatest challenge facing humanity today.”
That statement does not contain a lot of wriggle room.
The line is from a letter to the editor written by Jim Sawyer, identified as a member of Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility by the organization. That is a group trying to shut down Columbia Generating Station nuclear power plant and is in favor of eliminating nuclear energy altogether.
Nuclear energy provides 60 percent of the carbon-free electricity produced in the United States. That dwarfs wind (17%), solar (2.7%) and hydroelectric power (19%) by comparison.
The real reality
So how does one go about tackling “the greatest challenge facing humanity today”? Eliminating sources of clean energy would seem a dubious beginning. We have seen in states where nuclear plants shut down that carbon emissions rise. Look at Vermont (Vermont Yankee). Look at California (San Onofre, and perhaps Diablo Canyon). New York is gearing up to replace carbon-free Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant with a carbon-emitting natural gas plant. Even in Germany, often held up as an example of how to do renewable energy policy, emissions, coal use and electricity costs are all up.
This week, the Environmental Defense Fund acknowledged this reality in a post in favor of offering targeted financial incentives to existing nuclear energy plants to remain operating, if the alternative is to replace them with natural gas. That’s smart.
Renowned climate scientist Dr. James Hansen, in a study published by NASA’s Goddard Institute in 2013, found the clean air energy from nuclear power has saved 1.8 million lives and may save as many as 7 million more.
The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been saying for years that nuclear energy must be part of the climate change solution. In 2014 they wrote, “Achieving deep cuts will require more intensive use of low-GHG [greenhouse gas] technologies such as renewable energy, nuclear energy, and CCS [carbon capture and storage].”
Given these pro-nuclear voices and benefits, one would think the Physicians would be calling for MORE nuclear energy, not less.
To make a difference
Which brings us to Saturday, when people from all across the country will be marching for science. Some critics have said the march is more about politics than science, which in some cases and for some people may be accurate. Leave that aside.
It is refreshing that the Seattle march organizers (and indeed the national organization) created a graphic that features the symbol of the atom and sought to make nuclear energy part of the conversation. Nuclear science is an often forgotten field, foolishly equated by some to simply making bombs. But it is so much more (as in saving lives through nuclear medicine – surely PSR supports that!). As Dr. James Conca has said, when a mainstream media outlet features a segment on nuclear energy, the “expert” is almost always an activist, not a scientist. That needs to change.
To embrace science (and facts) is to realize that spent nuclear fuel is not the problem so many anti-nuclear activists make it out to be. It is used as a rhetorical fallback position (“yeah, but what about the waste”) to argue against any new nuclear energy. This should stop. Used nuclear fuel occupies a tiny land footprint and poses no environmental concerns as it is currently stored. The science tells us that. If one believes otherwise, that’s a departure from science into ideology. Science is helping us develop a way to utilize this spent fuel and turn it into more clean energy. Thankfully, interest in developing advanced reactors is gaining momentum.
To embrace science is to realize radiation is not the stuff of 1950s b-movies. That while natural disaster-induced nuclear events such as Fukushima are absolutely devastating to displaced local populations, claiming that people or fish/wildlife will be greatly affected by any resulting radiation/contamination is irresponsible. Scientists, real scientists, have looked at the impact of the releases from Fukushima on health and future cancer rates and found them to be negligible. That’s science. Anything else drifts into the realm of “alternative facts.” And who wants to go there?
Ideology is what drives false narratives about “easily” replacing baseload, or full-time, energy resources with intermittent ones. See an example here of how difficult it can be, even on a small scale. (Paywall alert). Don’t be mistaken, we need wind and solar as part of our electricity mix, especially to displace carbon-emitting resources. But using wind and solar to replace either hydro or nuclear makes zero sense in the age of climate change.
While storage technologies are promising, they aren’t efficient enough or economic enough to replace large hydro or large nuclear or large fossil resources. In 20, 30 or 40 years, perhaps. But groups like Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility want to close down nuclear plants yesterday. That’s irresponsible. Tesla cars are fun to talk about, but the world still runs on pick-up trucks and Camrys.
Mr. Sawyer continues his letter, “What’s almost as horrifying as these impending and looming realities is our government’s incomprehensible indifference to the problem and the seeming commitment and desire to accelerate a problem that the human imagination cannot even begin to come to grips with.”
Doctor, heal thyself.
The PSR position on nuclear energy was born of, and lives in, a pre-climate change universe. Since the time most anti-nuclear energy positions were formed in the 1970s and 80s, nuclear energy has only gotten better as an energy resource. The U.S. fleet now has annual capacity factors over 92 percent. It’s safety record continues to be unmatched. Which may be one reason anti-nuclear energy arguments focus almost exclusively on cost of power. But if you believe, as Mr. Sawyer and his colleagues believe, that climate change is “the greatest challenge facing humanity today,” shouldn’t that change the prism through which costs are viewed? How does the public health factor into PSR’s cost analyses? (Hint: it doesn’t for nuclear. Washington’s PSR chapter actually posted that link on their Facebook page, missing the irony). Cost for anti-nuclear groups is a convenient cudgel that only swings at one target, an opportunity brought about by (current) low natural gas prices. But then they don’t want natural gas either. That’s what ideology does for you.
Science… just the facts
While we still await an energy storage system capable of city-scale baseload equivalence; or a large-scale electric grid that can turn part-time energy resources into full-time, dispatchable resources; science has already developed a resource that is carbon-free, cost-effective and runs more than 90 percent of the time with an abundant supply of fuel.
Yeah, science did that.
Support science with your feet, but more importantly, support it with your brain and your heart.
(Posted by John Dobken)