Climate scientists: Embrace nuclear power

Four prominent climate scientists are urging environmentalists to embrace nuclear power to help fight global warming, arguing that “continued opposition . . . threatens humanity's ability to avoid dangerous climate change.”

“With the planet warming and carbon dioxide emissions rising faster than ever, we cannot afford to turn away from any technology that has the potential to displace a large fraction of our carbon emissions,” they say in a new open letter.

The letter, citing rising global energy demand, says there is “no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power.”

The letter is from Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution, Kerry Emanuel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tom Wigley of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, and James Hansen, the outspoken former NASA scientist who is currently at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

The letter was “distributed overnight to a variety of organizations and journalists,” according to New York Times climate blogger Andrew Revkin, who wrote a post about the letter here.

It’s also posted on CNN’s website. The network is airing the pro-nuclear documentary Pandora’s Promise on Thursday.

The scientists’ letter is a window onto a battle within the climate movement. It's about whether expanded nuclear power is needed to enable the steep global emissions cuts that many scientists say must occur to avoid the most dangerous climatic changes.

Many environmentalists and prominent groups, such as the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, oppose nuclear power due to accident risks, radioactive waste that plants create, and other factors.

Climate activists that oppose nuclear power say scaled-up use of green energy sources like wind and solar power, expanded efficiency, and other tools can bring steep carbon emissions cuts without constructing new nuclear plants.

The four scientists say safety advances can make new nuclear plants much safer than the current generation.

“Quantitative analyses show that the risks associated with the expanded use of nuclear energy are orders of magnitude smaller than the risks associated with fossil fuels. No energy system is without downsides. We ask only that energy system decisions be based on facts, and not on emotions and biases that do not apply to 21st-century nuclear technology,” the letter states.

Nuclear energy provides roughly 20 percent of U.S. electricity.

Southern Co. and SCANA Corp. are building new reactors in Georgia and South Carolina, respectively. But low natural gas prices, Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe and other factors have clouded prospects for a major nuclear build-out.

This post was updated at 9:30 a.m. on Nov. 4