Politics on climate change is relatively simple. Roughly two-thirds of Americans believe in climate change. When surveying scientists, the number is far higher. That includes world scientists, not just Americans. The few scientists who deny climate change are usually employed by coal and oil companies. They are often not climatologists and don’t publish their opposition articles in peer-reviewed journals read by climatologists. The deniers have most heavily influenced the Republican Party, especially members of the Tea Party.
Usually, when a substantial majority of 60% or better emerges on a political issue, that majority can institute legislation. With climate change, that has not happened. One of the reasons is because climate change has become a touchstone issue for the right and left. Both sides have dug their heels in and demanded ideological allegiance from elected officials. With the national government divided between Democrats and Republicans, that has resulted in a legislative stalemate. The result is that nothing significant happens as the earth continues to warm.
Part of the problem is that the left, primarily Democrats, want renewable energy sources to replace the carbon-dumping energy sources of coal, oil and other fossil fuels. Solar, wind and other renewables are a great idea, but they are not practical on the scale that immediately needs to be implemented to slow climate change.
Wind turbines can only operate at full efficiency about 25% of the time. Solar panels can only operate at full efficiency 15% of the time. The reasons are simple. The wind doesn’t always blow, and the sun doesn’t always shine. To achieve a steady source of energy from these sources, a lot of wind turbines and solar panels have to be built. That can create a lot of environmental disruption. Wind turbines have been death traps for birds. The production costs of materials and land use further complicate the notion of clean energy.
Plus, solar remains an expensive option. It can cost two or three times the price of fossil fuels. Many people are happy to downplay that problem as the cost of using renewables. Few of those people live on small fixed incomes or are part of the working poor. Raising energy costs by two or three times for people who are barely getting by is not a reasonable option. Subsidies have helped drop the price of photovoltaic panels, but the price of solar energy remains a widespread option only for the well-to-do.
It is hoped that eventually renewables can become economically and environmentally viable. That may take many years. In the meantime, the earth grows hotter. No one can turn off the lights while we wait for technology to catch up to our energy needs. Nations must continue to function. Coal and oil continue to pump gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere.
At this time, there remains only one viable option to quickly stop the massive release of greenhouse gases. That option is nuclear power.
Raise the issue of nuclear power, and it generates rabid responses. The threat of nuclear war invariably turns up in most casual debates about nuclear power, even though both power and weapons are two totally different processes and issues.
The issue of safety also emerges. Even though only 10,000 people have died directly from exposure to nuclear power since its advent (nearly all those were in two separate incidents in the Soviet Union), people still fear nuclear power. Fukushima is a perfect example. Years after the accident, people on the West Coast of the United States are still rattled by the fear of radiation hitting their shores. Yet, the radiation is a miniscule amount that is far less than what one gets in a single day from natural sources. The total number of deaths to date from Fukushima? Zero. Yet, the fear endures.
From short and long term exposure to nuclear energy production processes, it is estimated that about 90 people die a year. This is only one-third of the number that die from wind power accidents, even though wind power generates just a fraction of the energy that nuclear power does.
For years, a great concern has been the large amounts of radioactive waste that would need to be stored from nuclear energy production. As third and fourth generation reactors become available with more efficient reprocessing of spent fuel, less and less nuclear waste will be created. The problem is not eliminated, but it is significantly reduced.
While nuclear power is not the ultimate answer to addressing climate change, it can be a vital bridge between fossil fuel energy and renewable energy. With little time to spare in the challenge of dealing with climate change, nuclear power could provide the electricity to power homes, businesses and electric cars so that they will have a minimal impact on the climate.
With nuclear power, the resources needed to create energy are small compared to other energy sources. Some of the world’s leading conservation biologists declared:
A golf-ball-sized lump of uranium would supply the lifetime’s energy needs of a typical person, equivalent to 56 tanker trucks of natural gas, 800 elephant-sized bags of coal or a renewable battery as tall as 16 “super” skyscraper buildings placed one on top of the other.
Nuclear power can provide a gateway to affordable, efficient and environmentally safe renewables. However, we can’t simply crawl at a snail’s pace as we retire fossil fuel power plants. The world’s climate will pass the point where we can effectively treat it if we continue to dither. These dirty plants need to be shut down as quickly as possible. The only environmentally safe option remains nuclear power, which needs to be implemented with haste. Research needs to continue with renewables because they remain the long term solution.
At the pace we are heading, arctic ice will disappear, agricultural regions will dry up, cities will be slowly swallowed by the seas, coral reefs will shrink and ecosystems will face stress to the point of collapse. All this can be expected in this century. It is an unacceptable choice.
As the chart below shows, energy production remains dominated by fossil fuels. Renewables have increased since 1990. However, after 25 years, renewables remain but a drop in the energy bucket. Their increase continues in fractions. Reversing renewables for fossil fuel will take decades. We don’t have the luxury of time any longer. Nuclear is the only option.
One of the reasons that nuclear looks more and more viable is political. Climate change deniers are not going to change until it is far too late. Those who see climate change coming are going to have to work around the deniers for awhile. Conservatives who oppose climate change regulations or disbelieve climate science are not likely to oppose the building of more nuclear power plants. If liberals can be persuaded that the greater threat is climate change and not nuclear power, then the political will can be created to deal with climate change.
It is unfortunate that liberals and environmentalists must surrender the noble points of renewables, but it is the compromise that must be made in order to deal with a looming environmental, social and economic disaster of climate change. Liberals can either choose to swallow hard and accept the option of nuclear power to confront climate change or toy with renewables so that decades from now they can point at the blistering world temperatures and nod that they were right all along.
It is time to set aside who is right and just do something.