The Nuclear Power Debate

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nuclear power plant

Credit: Creative Commons/ brewbooks

I have been a socially responsible investor for over forty years. I apply strict ethical screens in choosing my companies. I also look for companies that sell products that make the world a better place. I take pride in owning such companies.

In making my investment decisions, I have made few compromises. Two weeks ago, however, I made a big compromise with my long held principles. I purchased a small position in an electric utility with some plants that run on nuclear power. It was not an easy decision. I made it only because I can no longer see a happy solution to the problem of global climate change without an increased reliance on nuclear power in the short term.

We all know the problem. In a post two months ago, I cited statistics from the United States Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimating that global energy consumption will increase by fifty-six percent by the year 2040. Currently solar and wind power generate two percent of the world’s electric power. Hydroelectric plants account for another four percent. The challenge we face is to dramatically increase the percentage of energy produced from these nonpolluting sources and to meet increased global energy demand from them as well.

This challenge must be met in a world in which the climate change clock is ticking rapidly. A million years ago carbon dioxide in the atmosphere varied from 180 parts per million to 280 parts per million. To manage the climate change problem safely, scientists claim we must not allow the carbon dioxide level to increase beyond 450 parts per million. This year for the first time the world surpassed 400. In 2013 carbon dioxide was released into the atmosphere at the fastest rate ever. If current trends continue, the world will exceed the 450 level within the next twenty-five years or less.

There is no question that wind and solar power have made dramatic progress as alternative energy sources in the last ten years. Both sources have become far more efficient with the cost per kilowatt-hour dropping impressively. Winds in particular as a source of energy has become competitive with coal and natural gas.

But there are problems with these alternative sources of energy. Wind doesn’t blow all the time and the sun only shines during the day, which means that a backup plant is required. This plant will most likely run on fossil fuel. Wind has the additional problem of blowing best far away from the cities that need electricity, which makes it necessary for new transmission lines to be constructed.

The Fukushima disaster in March of 2011 was a scary event. It led both Japan and Germany to close down nuclear power plants. How was the lost power replaced? Both countries turned to coal. As a result Japan will no longer meet its goal to reduce carbon emissions by twenty-five percent in 2020. The government now projects emissions will increase by three percent instead. Worldwide consumption of nuclear energy declined by seven percent between 2010 and 2012, and in most cases coal replaced it. Coal consumption was up 4.5 percent during that period. The EIA forecasts that by 2040 the US will generate twenty-two percent of its electricity from coal. That is not a big improvement. We generate twenty-six percent of our electricity from coal today.

As is well known, coal is by far the most dangerous greenhouse gas. What is less well known is that nuclear power is a much safer source of energy than coal. Far more people have died from the pollution that spews from coal-fired plants than have died from radiation exposure following a nuclear plant disaster. Climate change scientist James Hansen estimates that nuclear power has already saved 1.8 million lives from air pollution related deaths.

Nuclear plant disasters have been few and far between. They have also been well contained with the exception of Chernobyl. The threat to human life and property from nuclear plant disasters pale in contrast to what the world faces with runaway carbon dioxide emissions. The sad truth about the climate change problem is that we are not going to manage it safely without a greater reliance on nuclear power in the short term. Wind and solar, despite remarkable progress, are not yet ready to replace coal. Natural gas, while less polluting than coal, is not a long-term solution to the climate change problem. With luck and improved energy-related technology, we should be able to retire these nuclear plants within the next twenty-five or thirty years. I will instruct my children to sell my investment in the electric utility with some nuclear plants at that time.

Rick Herrick’s most recent novel is entitled A Man Called Jesus.