Enviros and climate scientists continue their fight over nuclear power

It didn’t take long for the Bootleggers to organize a roomful of Baptists to respond to the open letter from four climate scientists Caldeira, Emanuel, Hansen and Wigley. The response was signed by 300 of the usual crowd including Greenpeace USA and the Environmental Working Group. John Upton at Grist asked the climate scientists for a response. Ken Caldeira replied with this very civil email:

It is time for people to rethink their positions on nuclear power, and make arguments based on facts rather than prejudices.

Any good scientist and any good citizen should be constantly re-examining their positions, so the basic call for us to rethink our position on nuclear power is most welcome. I hope that the signers of this Civil Society Institute letter can bring themselves to re-examine the nuclear power issue with the same objectivity and lack-of-bias that they seek from us.

The letter confusedly suggests that I “embrace nuclear power”, and implies that I somehow discount the importance and potential of solar, wind, and efficiency. I cannot speak on behalf of my colleagues, but at least in my case, these claims are far from the truth.

We embrace things that we love. I don’t love nuclear power. Nuclear power has brought us Chernobyl and Fukushima. If the current industry were scaled up enough to solve the climate problem, there would be one such accident each year — and that is clearly unacceptable. Were I king of the world, I would decree that solar, wind, and efficiency would be the primary means we deploy to solve the climate problem.

But there is no energy storage system that works at the scale of the modern megalopolis. We need a way to power civilization when the sun is not shining and when the wind is not blowing. In a modern real economy, not ruled by benevolent kings, reliable power is required at competitive prices. There are very few technologies that can provide this reliable baseload power. Fossil fuels and nuclear power are the two leading candidates. I think an objective assessment of the facts shows that fossil fuels are far more dangerous than even today’s nuclear power.

But I do not defend today’s nuclear power industry. Even though most nuclear power plants have an excellent safety record, there are an important few that do not. There is no justification for the claim that this important type of electricity generation can never be made sufficiently safe and inexpensive.

To say that an entire category of technology can never be sufficiently improved is, I think, to adopt a position of technological myopia, where one lacks to the capacity to imagine that future technologies can differ substantially from today’s technologies.

I do not embrace nuclear power. There is no power source that one wants to embrace. They all have negative consequences. I do not want a solar PV factory, a massive wind turbine, or a nuclear power plant in my back yard. But I want the juice. The question is not about what power source I embrace, but about what power source I might think myself capable of not rejecting. Many people want to reject power sources, but want the juice that comes from those power sources.

In summary, I applaud the signers of the Civil Society Institute letter for their concern regarding climate change and for their support of solar, wind, and efficiency. Their call for us to rethink our positions on nuclear power is most welcome, and I ask only that they rethink their position with respect to nuclear power with the same degree of receptivity and objectivity that they ask of us.

I would like to add one point: There is no perfect energy source. What motivated Caldeira, Emanuel, Hansen and Wigley to propose that the environmental community reevaluate their position is because opposition to nuclear is support for coal. Nuclear power is the only scalable, dispatchable, low-carbon energy source that is economically acceptable to China, India and the rest of the fast-developing world. And per terrawatt-hour of delivered energy, nuclear electricity has proven to be one of the safest sources: slightly better or slightly worse than onshore wind, depending on which study you read. There is no perfect energy source.

3 thoughts on “Enviros and climate scientists continue their fight over nuclear power

  1. Mitch

    I think to a lot of anti-nukers at rock bottom it’s not a safety thing, it’s an historical-guilt-edged idelogical thing.

    1. Steve Darden Post author

      Yes. You never have to worry that you will offend your hostess at a cocktail party. OTOH if you explain realistic energy policy that can actually mitigate warming – you are likely to find yourself surrounded by empty space. Or in a fight.

  2. James Greenidge


    It’s not rocket science. If you had a simple scoreboard and chalked up the total mortality and health impact and property damage and environmental effect scores of each energy type — both in normal operation and accidents — nuclear energy just walks away as the easy low-harm low-impact high-energy winner. It boggles me to no end that ANS and NEI have never produced and hawked such a easily comprehending compartive chart in public! No wonder anti-nuker FUD gets away with slander and murder! Totally zero challenges!

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY


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