Can we fight climate change without scaling up nuclear power?

January 24, 2018 Pittsburgh City Paper
PEC in the News

One long-running disagreement about the environment isn’t the familiar fight between people who understand that human-caused climate change is real and people who deny it. Rather, it’s between folks who contend that keeping the planet livable requires us to use nuclear energy, and those who say “no way.”

Many pro-nukes types are scientists. In 2015, for instance, a group of 65 biologists wrote an open letter to the Brave New Climate blog, encouraging increased reliance on nuclear energy to protect wildlife and the environment. Nuclear power plants, they note, emit no carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gasses, and take up relatively little space for the power they produce. One biologist told England’s The Independent that a commitment to grow nuclear energy needed to be part of “a full, global-scale assault on fossil fuels.” The Union of Concerned Scientists calls nuclear “an important low-carbon energy source,” albeit one that needs to be made safer.

Opponents of nuclear energy say it’s still too dangerous. They recall the 2011 disaster in Fukushima, Japan, where an earthquake and tsunami led to a meltdown. Spent uranium, critics add, remains lethal for millennia. “Nuclear is no solution to Climate Change,” argues the Sierra Club on its website, “and every dollar spent on nuclear is one less dollar spent on truly safe, affordable and renewable energy sources.”

Still, perhaps paradoxically, the nuclear advocates in this debate are also climate warriors. Most experts agree that to check global warming, we must cut global carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050. Most green types want to do it by using less energy, and getting what we do need from renewable sources, like sun and wind. But at March 2017’s Pennsylvania Environmental Council conference here called Achieving Deep Carbon Reductions, several speakers argued that decarbonizing the economy that rapidly isn’t possible without nuclear; renewables, they say, can’t be scaled up fast enough. Many speakers advocated preserving generation from existing nuclear plants while exploring the potential for advanced nuclear reactors…

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