Part of the solution to climate change is nuclear power


“Better to be active today than radioactive tomorrow” read the sign I held as I joined other environmentalists in the fall of 1977, marching against the construction of a nuclear power plant in Seabrook, NH Two years later, opposition to nuclear power had spread widely. First, there was the 1979 film “The China Syndrome”, which questioned the safety of nuclear power plants. A few days after its release, there was the partial collapse of Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. The nuclear accidents at the Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine in 1986 and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan in 2011 later added to the anti-nuclear chorus within the environmental community.

But if I had known in the 70s what I know today, I might well have been across the street holding a sign that said, “Better to build it today than leave a piece of land.” burned tomorrow. Yes, progress is being made in the climate battle. Solar, wind and other clean energy technologies are advancing. The public is alarmed and calls for action. Governments and companies are setting target dates to achieve net zero CO2 emissions between 2035 and 2050. That’s fine.

But this is not enough and time is running out. Europe is in the midst of a historic heat wave. There are severe drought conditions in Africa and the United States. In the recently released United Nations State of the Climate report, which shows key climate indicators hitting new records in 2021, Secretary-General António Guterres put it bluntly: “The global energy system is broken. and brings us closer and closer to climate catastrophe. . . . We need to end fossil fuel pollution and accelerate the transition to renewable energy before we burn our only home.

In order to avoid a cataclysmic climate failure, the global community must expand its clean energy arsenal and accelerate technological advances. Environmentalist Bill McKibben summed it up well: “There is no magic bullet, only silver buckshot. Nuclear must be part of the buckshot.

This means keeping most of approximately 440 nuclear power plants in operation worldwide, including 54 in the United States. And that means accelerating the development of new high-tech factories. Yes, there are safety issues with nuclear power reactors, if they are not properly managed and regulated – the safety of the facilities and, perhaps most notably, the disposal of radioactive waste among them.

But consider the safety record. Hundreds of nuclear power plants around the world have been operating without safety problems for seven decades. In 18,000 cumulative reactor-years of commercial nuclear power plant operation, there have been two major reactor accidents – Chernobyl and Fukushima.

These accidents and the malfunctioning of Three Mile Island have received much attention. But consider: in Chernobyl, there were 30 to 60 radiation-induced deaths due to a technology that could not be licensed today, even in the former Soviet Union. More than 40 years after Three Mile Island, there is no evidence of lingering health effects. And although there were thousands of deaths during a panicked tsunami-induced evacuation in Fukushima, only one fatality was the result of radiation exposure.

Yet a recent study found that the burning of fossil fuels caused an estimated 8.7 million premature deaths in 2018 alone. And how many more lives were lost in wars sparked by the thirst for fossil fuels? We see it in Ukraine today. In response to Fukushima, Germany turned away from nuclear power. The National Bureau of Economic Research has concluded that Germany experiences 1,100 additional deaths each year and $12 billion in annual social costs due to its move away from nuclear power.

More than 50% of low-carbon electricity generation in the United States comes from today’s nuclear reactors. They play an increasingly critical role in addressing the intermittency of wind and solar generation and offer the promise of providing heat for industrial purposes, the toughest decarbonization challenge we face.

Additionally, technology is advancing with a focus on advanced small modular reactors that make the siting and financing of these projects more feasible, as well as the development of new cooling technologies that make them safer. Progress made in keeping fusion on a near-industrial scale at the Joint European Torus facilities in Britain earlier this year has been hailed as ‘revolutionary’ and ‘major breakthrough’ by scientists from leading science institutions. and nuclear engineering around the world.

But we can do more. The inclusion of the civilian nuclear credit program in the bipartisan Infrastructure Act to support the safe and continued operation of the country’s 92 nuclear reactors is a good start. The passage of legislation proposed by US Senators Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Cory Booker of New Jersey to advance efforts to research and commercialize new technologies could have a substantial impact. And other measures, such as loan guarantees, access to federal lands and tax credits, can contribute to progress.

James Hansen, the former head of NASA and the scientist who drew attention to the climate crisis during a congressional hearing in 1988, has been a consistent proponent of nuclear energy and its vital role in a carbon-free energy future. “The future of our planet and of our descendants,” Hansen wrote, “depends on basing decisions on facts and letting go of long-held prejudices about nuclear energy.” More environmentalists should set aside their decades-old biases and join the chorus.

John DeVillars, former Massachusetts Environmental Affairs Secretary and former New England Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, is a co-founder of BlueWave Solar.

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