Last year, the Group of 7 nations promised “urgent and concrete action” to limit climate change. Which actions were not specified. Activists hoped for answers from the United Nations climate conference in Paris, but it produced meaningless promises.
The single most important climate action we can take is an aggressive carbon-free nuclear energy policy. If we are serious about replacing fossil fuels, we are going to need nuclear power. This is most obvious in poor countries, where billions dream of living like Americans. Today, the easiest way to satisfy this energy demand for a better life has been to burn more polluting coal.
The push for alternatives
The push for energy alternatives saw major funding into so-called renewable technology during the early 2000s. The money was there, but the technology wasn’t. The result was a series of financial problems like Solyndra, the solar panel manufacturer in California that went bankrupt in 2011 after receiving federal support of hundreds of millions of dollars. Wind and solar together provide less than 3 percent of U.S. total energy, and they aren’t strong enough or reliable enough to replace fossil fuels.
We already had a nuclear plan back in the 1960s to reduce fossil fuel consumption without any need for erratic wind or solar. But after years of nuclear cost overruns, the bizarre coincidence of an accident at Three Mile Island, and the 1979 release of the Hollywood horror movie “The China Syndrome,” about a hundred proposed reactors were canceled. If we had kept building, our power grid could have been nearly carbon-free years ago.
Instead, we went in reverse. In 1984, Ohio’s nearly finished William H. Zimmer nuclear plant was converted into a coal-burning facility.
The 2011 Fukushima disaster confirmed old fears. 15,000 people were killed by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Nobody in Japan died from radiation, and U.N. researchers predicted that “no discernible increased incidence of radiation-related health effects are expected in Japan.”
A new generation, new designs
Now, climate anxiety may be overcoming nuclear fears. Visions of flooded coastal cities and warmer weather pests are overshadowing nuclear fears — especially since our 100 reactors have operated safely for years. A new generation of nuclear scientists is producing designs for better reactors. These new designs may also overcome a big obstacle to the success of nuclear power: high initial cost for the plants. Designs using molten salt, alternative thorium fuels, and small modular reactors have all attracted interest from entrepreneurs and venture capitalists like Bill Gates.
Our new president, whatever his limits, seems inclined toward nuclear energy. If this president clears the path for a new atomic age, American engineers are ready to build it.
Rolf Westgard is a geologist who teaches classes on energy subject for the University of Minnesota’s Lifelong Learning program.
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