Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Is Nuclear Necessary? In a Word, Yes.

Is Nuclear Necessary? In a Word, Yes.: "

germannuclear1Is the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan a convincing argument against nuclear power?

The governments of Germany and even China — which is hardly known for being responsive to the concerns of its citizens — seem to think so. China has, at least temporarily, shelved plans to build new nuclear plants while Germany has shuttered active plants in direct response to the crisis.

Germany’s ruling coalition even had to reverse its previous position on extending the lives of pre-1980s nuclear plants.

But if nuclear is not the answer to the world’s energy needs, then what is? Without it, we’re left with carbon-intensive fuels like coal and, maybe, natural gas. Abandoning nuclear in favor of these options could prove catastrophic for the fight against climate change, according to energy experts.

“I think it is very difficult (to fight global warming), even impossible, without using nuclear power,” International Energy Agency chief Nobuo Tanaka said yesterday. The Breakthrough Institute notes that carbon dioxide emissions in Germany could increase by as much as 4% a year as a result of the seven nuclear plants being taken offline. Germany has aggressive goals to reduce carbon emissions 20% by 2020 – a goal that would likely recede out of reach without nuclear power.

So what about contributions from wind, solar and other renewables?

Lobbyists for those low-impact renewables have jumped into the fray and declared their industry’s readiness to substitute for nuclear power. Indeed, clean energy continues to grow at a hectic pace, with revenue in key sectors surging 35% year over year in 2010. The trend shows signs of accelerating this year. But these arguments don’t take into account the low baseline for renewables in most countries — i.e., it’s easy to double solar’s contribution to baseload power if the current solar contribution is only 1% right now. It’s much harder to go from 1% to 10%.

Promises about renewable energy’s rapid deployment also run roughshod over concerns about utility-scale solar displacing endangered flora and fauna, the siting of wind farms, and the affordability of the renewable energy, to name just a few issues.

Renewables are a necessary part of the energy mix and should be scaled-up as quickly as possible — but they can’t be ramped up fast enough to replace nuclear. Yes, nuclear power poses unquestionable challenges – but the fact remains that we know very little about what’s happening at the Daiichi plant. And we need to ask, is the ability to survive a 9.0 magnitude earthquake coupled with an even more devastating tsunami a standard we should apply to nuclear plants the world over? (Particularly in areas of Europe, North America, and the rest of the world that are not close to major fault lines?)

There are many conversations worth having about nuclear safety — but knee-jerk reactions are anything but helpful in the fight against climate change.


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