My Turn: Stop shunning nuclear energy

  • The Seabrook nuclear power plant, shown in 2011. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 8/31/2016 12:20:10 AM

Bill McKibben, one of the leaders of the climate movement, recently called for the U.S. to wage war on rising carbon emissions. In an essay in the New Republic magazine, McKibben said that climate change has declared war on us. Witness, he said, the increasing global death toll from droughts, rising seas, forest fires and extreme weather.

He said: To win this war we must mobilize as we did in World War II. The entire nation must come together and build the factories that can churn out the clean-energy solutions that will rapidly transform the world’s energy systems.

Ignore his hyperbole. McKibben makes an important point: We aren’t doing nearly enough to address climate change. We still don’t even have a price on carbon.

But wait: His dream is of a World War II-type mobilization where the government closes every fossil fuel plant and orders the replacement of every gasoline car and truck with electric vehicles. This is not possible until the problem of storing grid power can be solved.

Your car has a grid with storage – the battery. There are no grid batteries of sufficient size now, but there is a race to develop them. When invented, how long will it take to build and install enough “grid batteries” to make a difference?

McKibben’s view of what could happen if we fail to mobilize on a scale of the Manhattan Project comes with a glaring oversight. While he has no trouble calling for construction of 295 solar factories, each the size of the largest solar factory ever conceived, there’s not a word in his essay about the construction of a single nuclear power plant. In fact, for all of McKibben’s climate zealotry, he opposes nuclear energy, which is America’s largest source of carbon-free power.

As is typical with many environmentalists, McKibben refuses to believe that wind and solar power can’t get us even halfway toward the goal of reducing U.S. carbon emissions 80 percent by mid-century. Forget that there isn’t technology available to store energy for use on days when the weather isn’t cooperating. Meanwhile, in New England we’re burning natural gas instead of emissions-free sources to produce electricity, and, as a result, carbon emissions are rising.

America’s fleet of nuclear power plants currently provide nearly 20 percent of our electricity and more than 60 percent of our emissions-free power. Yet, if you were to listen only to McKibben, you wouldn’t even know reactors exist. How can someone calling for a World War II-type mobilization to fight climate change ignore the nation’s largest source of emissions-free power?

McKibben, like so many Greens, can’t seem to move past the anti-nuclear thinking of the 1970s. Even as he claims his arguments are based on science and logic, McKibben fails to think rationally about nuclear energy. This is true of the environmental community generally, and it would be laughable if it weren’t so disturbing.

Here we have nuclear energy, the one emissions-free source of electricity that can be rapidly scaled up to make a difference, and it’s shunned. Two nations have shown how to decarbonize their electricity grids.

In the late 1970s through the 1980s, France and Sweden added more than 4,000 kilowatt hours of emissions-free electricity per person in just a decade. France, in fact, added more than 6,000 kWh of emissions-free power. Both countries achieved this by building nuclear plants.

Nuclear energy remains the one clean-power source that can be built at the scale and speed needed to decarbonize a nation’s energy grid. Wind and solar power are important and promising, but it’s absurd to pretend we can tackle climate change without a serious commitment to expanding the use of nuclear energy both here and abroad.

Despite tens of billions of dollars in federal spending on renewables, wind and solar power together supply just 7 percent of our nation’s electricity. If McKibben and the environmental community want to declare war on climate change, it’s about time they bring on the heavy artillery. We need more nuclear energy, and we need it now.

(Howard Shaffer of Enfield is a nuclear engineer.)

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