If you were to ask an environmentalist which power source they’d rather use, nuclear or fossil fuels, they would most likely ask “why not solar?” Both nuclear power and fossil fuels are equally bad in the minds of most environmentalists, and indeed the general population. Nuclear power, once hailed as the future of clean energy, has been stigmatized by over a half century of high-profile failures of the technology. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and now the Fukushima plant in Japan are all held up as examples of why nuclear power is not the right way forward.

The control room of a U.S. nuclear power plant, circa 1970.

The control room of a U.S. nuclear power plant, circa 1970.

However, according to four prominent climate scientists, nuclear power is the only way to move the world away from fossil fuels. Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution, Kerry Emanuel of MIT, James Hansen of Columbia, and Tom Wigley of the National Center for Atmospheric Research recently authored a letter calling for lawmakers and environmental organizations to reconsider their stances on nuclear power.

Quantitative analysis shows that the cost and time needed to scale renewables (solar, wind, and biomass) up to the levels needed to meet global energy demands are unrealistic. Even though the cost of photovoltaic cells have dropped to as low as $0.74/Watt, the number of solar cells needed to fully replace current fossil fuel sources would outstrip the foreseeable production capacity of the solar industry for decades to come.

Nuclear power, the scientists argue, is readily available and can be scaled up to meet future energy demands relatively easily. Fears of nuclear proliferation can also be mitigated using newer nuclear technologies that do not produce fissile material as a byproduct. Significant developments have been in recycling nuclear waste from traditional uranium-based plants, decreasing the amount of storage required for nuclear waste materials. And a new generation of nuclear reactors, known as thorium reactors, will allow nuclear plants to increase energy output while reducing the amount of radioactive waste produced in the process.

The point these scientists are trying to make is that continued use of fossil fuels is far more dangerous than using nuclear power. Increasing the supply of nuclear power, coupled with renewables, is the only way to halt the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere within the shortest amount of time. Hopefully, the weight of their voices can lend some staying power to the idea of revitalizing the world’s interest in nuclear technology.

It should be noted that the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved construction of the first new nuclear plant in 30 years just last year. The new wave of nuclear power could have already started without us even noticing!

Source: Ars Technica