Don’t go nuclear on climate change just yet

Don’t go nuclear on climate change just yet
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Nuclear power is being promoted as a necessary low-carbon solution to help mitigate the risks of climate change. But current-generation nuclear reactors, entail societal risks of their own – uncertain waste storage, serious nuclear proliferation risks, cost uncertainties, as well as the more well-known risk of the occasional nuclear accident. A massive increase in such reactors would mean a lot more nuclear material circulating and being enriched worldwide, including in the turbulent middle east.

Is a heightened risk of nuclear terrorism worth the benefit of mitigating a half-centigrade of temperature increase by 2100? How many more nuclear North Koreas is one willing to tolerate to ameliorate the ocean acidification caused by carbon dioxide emissions? Science alone cannot answer such questions. But science can help inform the politicians who must make these tough calls soon.

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Before proposing any risky “solutions” to climate change we first need to figure out just how severe the problem actually is – how much would Earth's surface air temperature increase if the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were doubled? Climate scientists do not have a solid answer for this key parameter called Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity, or “ECS” for short. And it's not that there's just a little uncertainty that can be nailed down by a bit more research – the uncertainty is large, and has stayed more or less constant for the past 25 years. In fact, the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report declines to even offer a figure for their best estimate of ECS.

A better understanding of the climate sensitivity to carbon emissions is crucial in making sensible policy decisions between the two types of risks at hand: the societal risks of from the man-made component of climate change versus the societal risks of any proposed solutions. No one wants the cure to be worse than the disease.

Could innovative new nuclear reactors like small modular reactors or the molten-salt concept solve the cost, proliferation, waste and safety concerns that plague the current generation, and so be part of the low-carbon solution? While “new-nuclear” should certainly be aggressively researched even supporters argue it will be 15 to 20 years before the technology is mature enough for commercialization. And licensing issues in bringing the power online would entail significant changes at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Department of Energy and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

MIT professor Richard Lester argues that advanced nuclear could be thought of “as an insurance policy— an option that may be needed if nearer-term low-carbon technologies lose their viability or fail to materialize at all.”

But to help nurture the fledgling “new-nuclear” industry we must first stop subsidizing “old-nuclear”: there is simply no breathing room for new-nuclear in a skewed marketplace favoring traditional reactors. For example, the 1957 Price-Anderson Act helps indemnify the old-nuclear industry against lawsuits arising from nuclear accidents. In effect, this is a massive continuing insurance premium bailout to the old-nuclear industry.

As a result, energy from the old-nuclear sector is artificially cheap, one reason that it continues to displace renewables and new-nuclear in the not-so-free-market. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission reports that many nuclear suppliers have said that “without Price-Anderson coverage, they would not participate in the nuclear industry”. The government must now stop subsidizing this old technology and create the breathing-space to help new nuclear and renewables get off the ground. Old nuclear is the enemy of new-nuclear.

The latest research indicates that the climate sensitivity to carbon dioxide may be weaker than previously thought: recently published ECS values are lower than previous ones. This trend – if confirmed – would be wonderful news, and could give us decades more time to come up with less risky longer-term climate solutions.

So do we just sit on our hands until we have more precise values for the climate sensitivity parameter? Certainly not – the large uncertainty of climate projections should not be an excuse for inaction. Quite apart from the issue of temperature increase due to carbon dioxide, there's the additional problem of ocean acidification: Carbon dioxide dissolves in the ocean to make an acid which can degrade the ability of many marine organisms to make and maintain their shells and skeletons. Regardless of the temperature increase due to carbon emissions, ocean acidification could have potentially serious consequences for the entire marine ecosystem – and the humans that depend on it.

Luckily, there are several carbon mitigation strategies with few, if any, negative side-effects and these could be implemented right away while climate scientists work to refine their climate sensitivity estimates. For instance, a McKinsey study concluded that,“Energy efficiency offers a vast low-cost energy resource for the American economy....[A] holistic approach...is estimated to reduce end-use energy consumption in 2020 by...roughly 23 percent of the projected demand, potentially abating up to 1.1 gigatons of greenhouse gases annually”.

Residential and commercial buildings consume roughly 40 percent of the nation's energy budget and there is enormous scope for making current and future building more efficient. Put another way, implementing strict energy efficiency standards alone could more than obviate the need for the 20 percent contribution nuclear power makes to the nation's electricity budget.

Similarly, government policies could help boost the use of carbon capture and renewable energy sources like wind, hydro and solar which have few negative side effects and many upsides. Specifically, government policies could be tailored to help address the technological challenges facing renewables: scale-up, storage, transmission, and backup capacity issues.

The key to understand is that we have options in the transition to a low carbon economy and there's no need to resort to the riskiest first. Indeed, the clean energy sector can be a economic bonanza: according to the Department of Energy, the U.S. solar workforce has increased 123 percent since 2010 – and this is the third consecutive year of about 20 percent annual jobs growth in this sector.

There's no need to continue to subsidize risky, proliferation-prone 1960's nuclear technology in a fight against climate change. Until science arrives at a more precise value for the climate sensitivity (ECS) parameter it's important to carefully calibrate the response to climate change. This means pursuing those solutions with fewest negative societal effects first: conservation, energy-efficiency, renewables, carbon-capture as well as researching novel nuclear reactor designs.

Butt, a nuclear physicist, is a visiting senior research fellow at the Center for Technology and National Security Policy at the National Defense University in Washington. The views expressed are solely those of the author.