The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Greens Starting to See Nuclear's Merit

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Over the weekend, four leading climate scientists begged the green movement to see reason on nuclear energy. The group—which included the scientist cum-activist who ominously (and wrongly) predicted that developing Canadian tar sands oil would be “game over” for the planet—sent a letter to a number of green groups making the case for the latest generation of nuclear reactors as a realistic green resource. Here’s the gist of the letter, courtesy of the NYT‘s Andrew Revkin:

As climate and energy scientists concerned with global climate change, we are writing to urge you to advocate the development and deployment of safer nuclear energy systems. We appreciate your organization’s concern about global warming, and your advocacy of renewable energy. But continued opposition to nuclear power threatens humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change.

We call on your organization to support the development and deployment of safer nuclear power systems as a practical means of addressing the climate change problem. Global demand for energy is growing rapidly and must continue to grow to provide the needs of developing economies. At the same time, the need to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions is becoming ever clearer. We can only increase energy supply while simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas emissions if new power plants turn away from using the atmosphere as a waste dump.

Renewables like wind and solar and biomass will certainly play roles in a future energy economy, but those energy sources cannot scale up fast enough to deliver cheap and reliable power at the scale the global economy requires. While it may be theoretically possible to stabilize the climate without nuclear power, in the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power.

There’s a lot to be excited about in the world of nuclear energy, and an end to the stubborn emotional green resistance may be the least of it. Next generation nuclear technologies like fast reactors, molten salt reactors, thorium reactors, and even nuclear fusion are making furious progress. Bill Gates sees energy as the best way to combat global poverty, and in pursuit of that goal is choosing to back next generation nuclear technologies. Hans Blix, the former UN weapons inspector, recently voiced his support for thorium for its non-proliferation potential.

That’s not to say that a new nuclear revolution is necessarily at hand. The cost of new plants is very high, and nuclear is being undercut by cheap shale gas in the US. Germany, Japan, and now South Korea have all walked back their nuclear energy ambitions in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. But while the momentum seemed decidedly against the zero carbon energy source in recent years, there is a growing sense that the newest generation of reactors have a bigger part to play yet.

[Nuclear reactor image courtesy of Shutterstock]

Published on November 3, 2013 3:00 pm
  • Bill_Woods

    While the hyperboloid cooling tower is iconic, it’s worth pointing out that the actual reactor is in the relatively small building at the far left.

    • f1b0nacc1

      What a wonderful metaphor….