In the last few years I have changed my mind about nuclear power. I used to believe that expanding nuclear power was too risky. Now I believe that the risks of climate change are much greater than the risks of nuclear power. As a result we need to move urgently toward a new generation of nuclear reactors.
What led to the change of view? First I came to believe that the likelihood of major climate related catastrophes was increasing rapidly and that they were likely to occur much sooner than the simple linear models of the IPCC indicated. My analysis developed as a result of work we did for the defense and intelligence community on the national security implications of climate change. Many regions of the Earth are likely to experience an increasing frequency of extreme weather events. These catastrophic events include megastorms, super tornados, torrential rains and floods, extended droughts, ecosystem disruptions all added to steadily rising sea levels. It also became clear that human induced climate change is ever more at the causal center of the story.
Research by climatologists like William Ruddiman indicate that the climate is more sensitive to changes in human societies ranging from agricultural practices like forest clearing and irrigated rice growing to major plagues to the use of fossil fuels. Human societies have often gone to war as a result of the ecological exhaustion of their local environments. So it becomes an issue of war and peace. Will Vietnam simply roll over and die when the Chinese dam what remains of the trickle of the Mekong as an extended drought develops at is source in the Tibetan highlands?
Even allowing for much greater efficiency and a huge expansion of renewable energy, the real fuel of the future is coal, especially in the US, China and India. if all three go ahead with their current plans on building coal fired electric generating plants then that alone will over the next two decades double all the CO2 that human kind has put into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution began more than two hundred years ago. And the only meaningful alternative to coal is nuclear power. It is true that we can hope that our ability to capture the CO2 from coal burning and sequester it in various ways will grow, but it will take a decade or more before that technology reaches commercial maturity.
At the same time I also came to believe that risks of nuclear power are less than we feared. That shift began with a trip to visit the proposed nuclear waste depository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. A number ofEdge folk went including Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly, Danny Hillis, and Pierre Omidyar. When it became clear that very long term storage of waste (e.g. 10,000 to 250,000 years) is a silly idea and not meaningfully realistic we began to question many of the assumptions about the future of nuclear power. The right answer to nuclear waste is temporary storage for perhaps decades and then recycling the fuel as much of the world already does, not sticking it underground for millennia. We will likely need the fuel we can extract from the waste.
There are emerging technologies for both nuclear power and waste reprocessing that will reduce safety risk, the amount of waste and most especially the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation as the new fuel cycle produces no plutonium, the offending substance of concern. And the economics are increasingly favorable as the French have demonstrated for decades. The average French citizen produces 70% less CO2 than the average American as a result. We have also learned that the long term consequences of the worst nuclear accident in history, Chernobyl were much less than feared.
So the conclusion is that the risks of climate change are far greater than the risks of nuclear power. Furthermore, human skill and knowledge in managing a nuclear system are only likely to grow with time. While the risks of climate change will grow as billions more people get rich and change the face of the planet with their demands for more stuff. Nuclear power is the only source of electricity that we can now see that is likely to enable the next three or four billion who want what we all have to get what they want without radically changing the climate of the Earth.