Is Nuclear Energy a Quick Fix for Global Warming?
Nuclear power is the only short-term alternative to fossil fuels. That’s the opinion of a growing number of environmentalists and climate experts, who say that a horizon stamped with nuclear silos is the only realistic course for the future.
The mention of nuclear power carries certain connotations: Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Fukushima, men and women sweating under bright yellow hazmat suits as they run Geiger counters over steaming piles of rubble.
But there are some within the environmental and scientific communities who insist that disasters such as these are few and far between, and that safer, "4th generation" nuclear technology—which refers to more efficient nuclear facilities—is our only real option for stemming climate change.
One of the most notable advocates for nuclear power is NASA’s reputable climate scientist James Hansen. A recent story by Slate sums up Hansen’s perspective:
“No. 1, solar and wind power cannot meet the world’s voracious demand for energy, especially given the projected needs of emerging economies like India and China, and No. 2, nuclear power is our best hope to get off of fossil fuels, which are primarily responsible for the heat-trapping gases cooking the planet.”
Jim Riccio, a nuclear policy analyst for Greenpeace, called Hansen’s endorsement of nuclear power “dead wrong.”
“If you actually want to address climate change,” Riccio told Campus Progress, “You need something fast and affordable. That rules out nuclear power.”
The last nuclear facility to come online in the United States was the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant in Tennessee. It took more than 20 years for the facility to get its first reactor up and running. The plant’s second reactor is slated to come online in 2015, at an estimated cost of $4 to $4.5 billion, according to the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Riccio said the “prohibitive costs” of nuclear power rule it out as a solution, both in terms of long-term energy needs and as a means of battling climate change. He added that claims of carbon-free nuclear energy ignore the tremendous amount of material required to build these facilities.
Riccio said that he respects Hansen’s work on climate change, but that he and others like him are “grasping at nuclear straws.”
“We’ve put ourselves behind the eight ball,” Riccio said. “We can’t waste our time on things like nuclear power.”
Cody Bond is a reporter with Campus Progress.