Framing a discussion on nuclear power

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Framing a discussion on nuclear power

Mike Shatzkin
By Mike Shatzkin and 04/09/21

I was delighted to be given the opportunity to sponsor this Our Energy Policy session on nuclear power. I want to tell you why.

In 2016  I decided to devote most of my time to climate change. I had come to the conclusion that greenhouse gases would, if unchecked, be an existential threat to human civilization just beyond my lifetime and I thought I should carve out time for the rest of my active life to try to address it.

The most tangible evidence of this career change is a website I have co-financed and co-developed. Please take a look at ClimateChangeResources.org

So I started to learn. My intense interest in what this session will cover was sparked by what I learned about nuclear power, proceeding from the reasonably conventional position of many environmental activist liberal Democrats that it was somehow associated with nuclear weapons and was dangerous and should be dismissed. I’ve concluded that objections from my tribe, many of whom understand and fear the effects of CO2, were fueled by two big misunderstandings.

One is that the three great “events” of nuclear power history — 3-Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima — so often reflexively cited as justifications to oppose nuclear power, actually prove that it is safe, not that it is dangerous. And the fact that there are only those three events to cite is in itself stark evidence of nuclear safety.

The other is the common citing of “the waste, which we don’t know what to do with” as a reason to oppose nuclear plants. While I have no objections to thinking the question through further and we probably should have some longterm plan, the fact is that “the waste” from nuclear power in the US has never harmed anybody. Our methods of storage have been more than adequate for half a century. It is not a reason to oppose the only large-scale no-CO2 power source we’ve got.

The other thing I would like to add to set the stage is a bit of context. The no-carbon future we all need is seen as powered by renewables. Wind and solar are intermittent. For them to really take over energy generation, one or more of three other technologies — nuclear, carbon capture, or batteries — must have massive breakthroughs. Frankly, only nuclear among those three can certainly provide the energy needed to sufficiently complement renewables at its present level of technological development. Battery storage today is measured in hours when we need it to work for months. And carbon capture with sequestration is quite sensible, but nowhere near large-scale implementation.

I am a confirmed “All of the Above” man. We need to be working on all three and take our breakthroughs where we can get them. Time is too tight and the consequences are too dire for us to be cavalier about whether it is nuclear, carbon capture, or batteries that save us.

Nuclear is essential. We need to develop new nukes: molten salt and small modular and fusion. And we have to conquer the largely irrational fear of the nuclear power plants we already have.

I look forward to the discussion among this very knowledgeable panel.

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