Prof. James Hansen and a group of scientists released a paper today claiming we need to go nuclear to prevent climate change. Generally speaking I’m against nuclear power, and point at the Fukushima disaster as proof of my fear of that technology. But.. the scientists behind the paper make an interesting case.
My write-up on examiner.com covers the paper fairly well – so what do I mean by they’re telling us to “go nuclear”?
First, the paper makes a case that the 2 degrees C target is not good enough, because it’s expected to result in 20 feet of sea level rise and other nasty things like massive species extinctions. To keep the planet to 1 degree C of warming, we must keep total carbon emissions to around 500 Gigatons of Carbon (500 GtC).
Humanity is already at 370 GtC of carbon emissions, and adding carbon at 10 GtC per year. Meaning, there are 13 years left before 1 degrees C of warming is inevitable. Eep.
To avoid going much beyond the 500 GtC threshold the scientists say that Humanity must immediately go on a drastic project of eliminating fossil fuels, to the tune of 6% reduction per year in carbon emissions. The longer we wait the harder it will be.
In other words, the situation is dire, and we need to absolutely eliminate fossil fuel consumption. Therefore, what’s the best way to go about this?
First we have to back up a step – where does the fossil fuel get consumed? Coal is primarily used to generate electricity, while oil is primarily used for transportation. Thee are some other resources, and unfortunately renewable energy (wind, solar, etc) is a tiny sliver of world energy production.
While renewable energy installation is far preferable over nuclear power plants, and while it is growing rapidly thanks to government support around the world, Hansen et al say that we cannot rely on renewable energy systems.
The key is that renewable energy is not suitable for baseload electricity. The baseload electricity is the reliable, always-on, electricity that provides the bulk of the power on the grid. Because renewable energy resources are intermittent the utility companies cannot put the whole system at risk of a cloudy windless day gutting electricity production.
Of the electricity sources that aren’t fossil fuels, it is nuclear power that best matches baseload energy needs.
The highly controversial part of the paper comes when they suggest that the Western Powers outfit China with modern nuclear reactors. Why? Because China is the leading Coal user, and is rapidly ramping up electricity production to match their rapid industrialization. Meaning, that China (and India etc) most need to adopt clean electricity generation from the outset. To avoid the problem of Coal consumption in China, it’s better to give them nuclear reactors.
But.. wait .. Fukushima .. Nuclear Disasters .. is this Hansen guy nuts?
What they say in the paper is that the Fukushima disaster is because those reactors are over 40 years old, and are the 2nd generation reactor designs. Today, 40 years later, there are of course advanced nuclear reactor designs available. The 3rd generation designs can shut down automatically in case of problems, and have a much easier time cooling off. The 4th generation reactor designs can use nuclear waste material like Depleted Uranium, giving “us” a place to use that material that’s much better than building bullets out of the stuff.
In other words, this ain’t your Grandpa’s nuclear reactors, so quit worrying about it. Uh.. this is something to do some research on, and might as well research that Thorium stuff we keep hearing about too.
In any case, the point is that electricity itself is clean. But what’s important is the source of the electricity. Coal generated electricity is bad and for example some try to tarnish electric vehicles as being coal powered as a way to undermine EV adoption. What we all need to do is to advocate for clean energy production on a global basis, to match electric car adoption, so that the entire well-to-wheels system for transportation fuels is clean.
I think that means we need to keep nuclear power to a minimum. But..
The paper was published on December 3, 2013 via the open access journal PLOS ONE, and is available for download through Prof. Hansen’s website or via the PLOS ONE website.
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