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Let’s Go Nuclear

Can climate change be slowed and catastrophe avoided? They can to the degree that humanity influences climate dynamics. The primary cause of global climate change is our burning of fossil fuels for energy.

So everything must be done to increase energy efficiency and decarbonize energy production. Kyoto accords, radical conservation in energy transmission and use, wind energy, solar energy, passive solar, hydroelectric energy, biomass, the whole gamut. But add them all up and it’s still only a fraction of enough. Massive carbon “sequestration” (extraction) from the atmosphere, perhaps via biotech, is a widely held hope, but it’s just a hope. The only technology ready to fill the gap and stop the carbon dioxide loading of the atmosphere is nuclear power.

Nuclear certainly has problems—accidents, waste storage, high construction costs, and the possible use of its fuel in weapons. It also has advantages besides the overwhelming one of being atmospherically clean. The industry is mature, with a half-century of experience and ever improved engineering behind it. Problematic early reactors like the ones at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl can be supplanted by new, smaller-scale, meltdown-proof reactors like the ones that use the pebble-bed design. Nuclear power plants are very high yield, with low-cost fuel. Finally, they offer the best avenue to a “hydrogen economy,” combining high energy and high heat in one place for optimal hydrogen generation.

The storage of radioactive waste is a surmountable problem (see “A New Vision for Nuclear Waste,” December 2004). Many reactors now have fields of dry-storage casks nearby. Those casks are transportable. It would be prudent to move them into well-guarded centralized locations. Many nations address the waste storage problem by reprocessing their spent fuel, but that has the side effect of producing material that can be used in weapons. One solution would be a global supplier of reactor fuel, which takes back spent fuel from customers around the world for reprocessing. That’s the kind of idea that can go from “Impractical!” to “Necessary!” in a season, depending on world events.

The environmental movement has a quasi-religious aversion to nuclear energy. The few prominent environmentalists who have spoken out in its favor—Gaia theorist James Lovelock, Greenpeace cofounder Patrick Moore, Friend of the Earth Hugh Montefiore—have been privately anathematized by other environmentalists. Public excoriation, however, would invite public debate, which so far has not been welcome.

Nuclear could go either way. It would take only one more Chernobyl-type event in Russia’s older reactors (all too possible, given the poor state of oversight there) to make the nuclear taboo permanent, to the great detriment of the world’s atmospheric health. Everything depends on getting new and better nuclear technology designed and built.

Years ago, environmentalists hated cars and wanted to ban them. Then physicist Amory Lovins came along, saw that the automobile was the perfect leverage point for large-scale energy conservation, and set about designing and promoting drastically more efficient cars. Gas-electric hybrid vehicles are now on the road, performing public good. The United States, Lovins says, can be the Saudi Arabia of nega-watts: Americans are so wasteful of energy that their conservation efforts can have an enormous effect. Single-handedly, Lovins converted the environmental movement from loathing of the auto industry to fruitful engagement with it.

Someone could do the same with nuclear power plants. Lovins refuses to. The field is open, and the need is great.

Within the environmental movement, scientists are the radical minority leading the way. They are already transforming the perspective on urbanization and population growth. But their radicalism and leadership will have to increase if humanity is to harness green biotech and step up to its responsibilities for the global climate. The romantics are right, after all: we are indi­visible from the earth’s natural systems.

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