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Heretical Position On Nuclear Power

Some environmentalists believe nuclear power must be one option to combat catastrophic climate change

by Bette Hileman
August 21, 2006 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 84, ISSUE 34

Credit: Sami Sarkis/Getty Images
Credit: Sami Sarkis/Getty Images

Environmentalists used to be almost universally opposed to nuclear power. Many groups recruited members and defined themselves by their steadfast, almost religious, opposition to the technology.

But during the past few years, several prominent environmental activists have come around to the idea that nuclear power must be considered as one option, along with other low-carbon technologies and energy efficiency, to address climate change. They also believe that if new coal plants are built, they should be designed to gasify coal to hydrogen and carbon dioxide and that the CO2 should be stored indefinitely in geological repositories or depleted oil wells (C&EN, Dec. 20, 2004, page 36).

Among those who have changed sides, the most famous is Patrick Moore, cofounder of Greenpeace, who quit the organization in 1986 after spending 15 years protesting nuclear power and decrying the dangers of nuclear waste. He now openly embraces the idea of building more nuclear reactors to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. James Lovelock, creator of the Gaia theory, is another prominent environmentalist who has decided that fears about nuclear power are exaggerated and that it must be expanded to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Other well-known environmental advocates have adopted a similar, but more tentative, stance. Fred Krupp, executive director of Environmental Defense; Jonathan Lash, president of the World Resources Institute; and James Gustave Speth, dean of Yale University's School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, say rather than rejecting nuclear power, solutions should be found to the economic, safety, waste storage, and proliferation problems.

It is not so much that these environmentalists like nuclear power. They know weapons-grade nuclear materials could fall into the hands of terrorists or rogue nations. They are aware that no country has figured out a satisfactory way to deal with nuclear waste and that, for an indefinite period, spent nuclear fuel may need to be stored in aboveground casks until safe underground repositories can be developed. They also know that, in the U.S. at least, nuclear power is more expensive than electricity from coal-fired boilers, hydroelectric plants, or wind turbines. The cost of operating nuclear plants is low, but outlays for construction and the long delays involved in getting permits and siting the plants raise the overall cost of nuclear electricity higher than that of other technologies.

Environmental thinkers, such as Moore and Krupp, however, believe that the dangers of irreversible climate disruption may be even greater than potential threats from nuclear plants. They subscribe to the view that global emissions of greenhouse gases must be stabilized over the next 10 years and reduced 50-80% by mid-century to avoid devastating impacts from climate change. They are especially concerned about the rapidly accelerating melting of ice now going on in polar regions. For example, satellite measurements, using both gravity and interferometer methods, show that about 240 km3 of the Greenland ice sheet is melting annually. Gravity data reveal that the melt rate in 2005 was three times faster than in the 1997-2003 period, when it was about 80 km3 per year.

They also worry about recent temperature changes in the Arctic. In the first seven months of 2006, Arctic temperatures soared 6.3 oF (3.5 oC) above the 30-year average to the highest ever for that period.

Moore, Krupp, and others with similar views worry that if CO2 emissions continue to grow unabated and the average global temperature rises as much as 5 oF (2.8 oC), which is in the middle of the predicted range of 2.5-10.4 oF, much of the Greenland ice sheet as well as a substantial part of the West Antarctic ice sheet may melt. They agree with Jonathan T. Overpeck, director of the Institute for the Study of Planet Earth at the University of Arizona that if greenhouse gas emissions are not curbed, sea level may rise 13-20 feet (4-6 meters) during this century. A rise at the higher end of this range would cause the inevitable loss of much of South Florida, New Orleans, large parts of Manhattan, and much of the land area of the Netherlands and Bangladesh.

Though I have many doubts about the wisdom of expanding nuclear power, I agree with those who advocate trying to solve its problems rather than dismissing the technology out of hand. The emissions reductions required to stabilize climate are so huge that no reasonable option should be rejected without careful study.

Currently, more than 600 coal-fired electric plants produce 36% of U.S. CO2 emissions and nearly 10% of total global emissions. According to the Energy Department, power producers have about 150 new coal-fired plants on the drawing board. Improvements in energy efficiency and more wind turbines could substitute for some of these plants. After a few more years of research, it may be possible to avoid quite a few coal plants by installing photovoltaic panels or film on many roofs. The CO2 from new coal-fired plants could be sequestered in geologic repositories, but this is a very expensive technology that would require several decades to develop on a massive scale. Nuclear power may be the only technology that can take the place of many of the planned coal units in the near term and provide the base-load power required when the wind doesn't blow or the sun doesn't shine.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.



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