Environmentalists take climate change very seriously, as they should. But most are against an energy source that stands the best chance of stabilizing the climate: nuclear. It’s time for them to rethink their position, as four of the world’s leading climate scientists (three Americans and one Australian) urged last week in an open letter to environmental groups and politicians.
Probably the biggest reason for the opposition to nuclear power is fear of a major disaster. But it’s not as if the world has no experience with nuclear plants (40 years’ worth) — and two of the biggest accidents, at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Fukushima, Japan, in 2011, didn’t kill anyone.
Chernobyl in 1986 was responsible for 64 direct deaths (mostly among plant workers) and thousands more extra cancer deaths from radiation (estimates vary widely). But the reactors there had no containment. And the plant at Fukushima, which was hit by an earthquake and tsunami, had a design from the 1960s. With passive safety systems and other advances, today’s new plants are not as dangerous, including those now being built in Georgia and South Carolina.
Another, more legitimate concern of nuclear opponents is that there is no fool-proof, or politically acceptable (think Yucca Mountain), way of storing highly radioactive waste from the plants, which will stay toxic for thousands of years.
But it’s not as if the utilities haven’t been producing this stuff all along; now it just sits there in pools or dry casks on-site, susceptible to accidents or terrorism. A central, government-managed facility would have to be safer. And there’s promising research on reactors that would burn nuclear waste, significantly reducing, if not eliminating, the need for storage.
The truth is, nothing is without risk, including coal mining and oil and natural gas extraction, where plenty of workers have died from explosions and other accidents.
The transport and burning of these fuels have also been problematic, for the environment as well as people’s health and safety. Pollution is one reason. Climate change is another. And it’s going to get worse: A new U.N. Environmental Programme report says the gap between pollution cuts and dangerous climate change is growing — i.e. greenhouse-gas emission levels are “considerably higher” than what will be needed to keep the global average temperature increase below 2 degrees Celsius by 2020.
The climate scientists who wrote the letter point out that renewables such as wind and solar can’t replace fossil fuels fast enough or in sufficient quantity to meet the global economy’s current demand, let alone the new demands of developing nations. That’s why they are calling for a national discussion about nuclear power, featuring safer plants, which New York Rep. Chris Gibson was also advocating before the accident in Japan. He and other politicians should start that discussion, and environmentalists should join in with an open mind.