A comprehensive climate report released on Friday, November 22nd, essentially summarized the scientific consensus around climate change. The report provides multiple examples of damage already wrought by climate change – such as the heightened frequency of extreme weather disturbances and the highly destructive wildfires in California – and describes, in grim detail, the future negative effects of climate change. As per the report, if current trends continue, economic damages will reach hundreds of billions of dollars annually. The increase in heat-related deaths is projected to surpass the decrease in cold-related deaths, and overall, public health is expected to take a hit as warmer temperatures are conducive to the spread of many diseases such as Zika. The rise in global sea-levels, along with the growing problem of ocean acidification, threaten the livelihood of coastal communities across the United States.
This US-government report parallels a report released by the United Nations in October of 2018, which explored the possibility of global temperatures rising by 1.5 degrees Celcius above pre-industrial levels – a development projected to occur between 2030 and 2052. While the 1.5-degree warming scenario is not optimal – massive adverse effects are still projected, such as an ice-free Arctic Ocean 2-3 times per century – it is still a marked improvement over the 2-degree warming target agreed upon at the Paris Climate Accords, which would result in an ice-free Arctic Ocean once per decade. However, meeting the 1.5-degree target is a difficult task which would require massive economic changes. For example, by 2050, only 7% of global power could come from coal, compared to the 40% dependency on coal today. With leaders such as Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro decrying climate change to be a hoax, the current worldwide political situation is not ideal for fighting climate change.
While many who seek to fight climate change focus on renewable sources of energy such as solar and wind power, a larger, cheaper, safer, and cleaner source of energy – nuclear – is often overlooked. The merits of nuclear energy come down to basic physics – the complete fissioning of 1 kilogram of Uranium yields 80 million megajoules of energy, which is a whopping 2.5 million times the energy released by burning 1 kilogram of coal. Nuclear energy emits virtually no CO2 – the fissioning process consumes Uranium and generates power typically by heating water – and its waste products, contrary to what many critics of nuclear energy believe, can be stored safely, deep underground, for millions of years. Nuclear energy has the lowest costs per KWH of all energy sources, at 2.2 cents per KWH (compared to 3 cents for coal, 4.5 cents for natural gas, 6 cents for wind, 10 cents for solar, and 22 cents for oil).
Yet, for all of its positives, nuclear energy is on the decline worldwide. Fewer plants are being constructed, and in 2017, the world only added 3.3GW to its nuclear energy capacity, while losing 4.6GW due to decommissioning. Only 54 nuclear power plants are under construction and roughly 100 more planned – in contrast, 1600 coal plants are planned to be constructed worldwide. Much of this can be blamed on the negative perception of nuclear power following both the Chernobyl and Fukushima incidents. Both of these incidents have been surrounded by misinformation. Chernobyl was essentially an experiment gone wrong, with many safeguards being disabled and personnel breaching “the most important operational safety provisions for conducting a technical exercise”, according to an INSAG ( International Nuclear Safety Advisory Group) report published in 1986. The Fukushima disaster, meanwhile, only resulted in a single casualty as a direct consequence of radiation, and the World Health Organization projected no increases in miscarriages or birth defects as a result of the Fukushima disaster.
Attacks against nuclear power have only served to strengthen its technological merits. Globally, companies are developing so-called “Gen IV” nuclear reactors – reactors that have marked advantages over previous 3rd generation designs. For example, anti-nuclear critics like to point out the fact that Uranium is technically a nonrenewable resource, and that only 0.3% of natural Uranium is U-235 – the isotope of Uranium that can be readily fissioned with thermal neutrons and assembled into a critical mass. Nuclear engineers answered with “breeder” reactors, which use excess neutrons from nuclear fission to transmute U-238 (useless for power generation) into Pu-239, which functions in a similar matter to U-235. Nuclear reactors often require large, heavy, and expensive pressure vessels in order to utilize water as a neutron moderator and coolant – otherwise, the water would boil and the reactor would explode. Molten-salt reactors are a potential solution to this problem – liquid sodium, for example, only boils at around 800 degrees C, so it can be utilized as coolant without complicated and expensive pressure vessels. Overall, as time and technology progress, nuclear power will only become an even stronger solution to the problem of climate change.
America must lead a “Nuclear New Deal”, not just in its own borders, but across the globe. America has the financial resources to construct hundreds of nuclear power plants within its own country, and wean itself off of coal. America has the scientific and financial resources to pursue the research and development of promising new technologies, such as LFTR reactors and the so-called “Holy Grail” of energy production – nuclear fusion. American workers have the skill and technical ability to construct nuclear reactors both in America, and aid in the construction of reactors in developing areas such as India, Latin America, and Africa. While this is a costly short-term investment, it will pay colossal dividends in the long run. A cheap, clean, and practically-limitless source of energy could fuel both American and global development for the next century – an atomic-powered century.
The decline in nuclear power is a serious development in a negative direction. America, as the most powerful nation on Earth and the dominant player on the global stage, must use its political clout to reverse this decline and encourage the development of nuclear power, for the benefit of all of mankind. We cannot afford to force our descendants to wonder why their predecessors did not pursue such an obviously beneficial technology. Instead, we can and must aggressively pursue the construction of new nuclear power plants, while the fight against global warming is still winnable.