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Can Homer Simpson save the world? Reevaluating nuclear power in the age of the Green New Deal

So nuclear plants DON’T cause three-eyed fish?

If you grew up in the ’90s, nuclear power may conjure up images of Homer Simpson and his maniacal billionaire boss, Mr. Burns. It’s not a good look, to be sure. Homer is an idiot who’s nearly caused disastrous meltdowns at his own plant, and Mr. Burns stands next to There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview as one of the most recognizable figures of corporate immorality.

But, on the first Earth Day since a group of young freshmen congresswomen catapulted aggressive climate action into the national conversation, it’s perhaps time we reevaluated nuclear power and its role in future energy policy.

A recent report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimated we have about 12 years to keep global temperatures from exceeding 1.5 °C to prevent catastrophic natural disasters. To meet this goal, the world’s leading climate scientists call for a dramatic shift in global energy policy around to reduce carbon emissions. Renewable energy sources like wind and solar are the most popular solutions, and they’re favored by the architects of the Green New Deal, the ambitious plan introduced by House Democrats earlier this year.

Climate experts aren’t so sure renewables alone are the answer, though. In 2013, top climate scientists published an open letter to policy influencers urging for the development and deployment of safer nuclear energy systems, stating, “there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power.”

And while they feel the use of renewables should be expanded as well, the problem is they can’t scale fast enough to keep up with the growing global economy. These scientists acknowledged the public concern:

We understand that today’s nuclear plants are far from perfect. Fortunately, passive safety systems and other advances can make new plants much safer. And modern nuclear technology can reduce proliferation risks and solve the waste disposal problem by burning current waste and using fuel more efficiently. Innovation and economies of scale can make new power plants even cheaper than existing plants. Regardless of these advantages, nuclear needs to be encouraged based on its societal benefits.

Credit: Pixabay

But what about Chernobyl? Three Mile Island? Fukushima? Michael Shellenberger, president of the independent research and policy organizatino, Environmental Progress, has been defending nuclear power for years. Last month, he published a piece in Forbes arguing that not only do these three infamous cases fail to put a nail in the coffin of nuclear power, but rather they demonstrate just how safe nuclear power is. Fewer than 50 people have died from the Chernobyl incident in the 30 years since it happened.

“Radiation from Chernobyl will kill, at most, 200 people, while the radiation from Fukushima and Three Mile Island will kill zero people,” Shellenberger says.

If these represent the very worst examples in history of nuclear plant issues, Shellenberger says, nuclear energy is comparatively the safest energy source on the planet. The accident at the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig, for instance, killed 11 people and arguably caused a greater environmental impact than any nuclear energy disaster. Consider the damage caused by far more frequent spills, like the Keystone pipeline in South Dakota or the Pacific Gas & Electric natural gas pipeline explosion in San Francisco, that killed eight people. Yet few look at oil and gas with the same level of terror. 

Of course, one concern is the fallout. When John Oliver delivered one of his show’s lengthy deep dives into the dangers of nuclear waste two years ago, it met with surprising pushback from nuclear scientists like James Conca. Conca rejected Oliver’s central claim that nuclear waste poses a serious threat to public health and the environment. “It’s one of the least threatening issues facing our country, the one with the lowest risk factors of any environmental threatIt’s safer to work at a nuclear site than to sit at a desk trading stocks,” according to Conca. He continues:

Besides, there just isn’t much nuclear waste. 70,000 tons over 60 years? Hello – it’s uranium, the heaviestelement [sic] on Earth prior to 1940. That much waste wouldn’t even fill one good-sized landfill. Coal generates that much toxic waste every 30 minutes.

No one is going to die from nuclear waste. No one ever has. And we know what to do with it, where to put it, and what it’s going to cost.

But back to the question of whether we even need nuclear power if we’re to meet the IPCC’s 12-year window. Shellenberger cites Vermont’s failed 2005 effort using only renewables and energy efficiency to reduce emissions 25% below 1990 levels by 2012, and 50% below 1990 levels by 2028. “Vermont’s emissions rose 16.3%, he said. “That’s more than twice as much as national emissions rose during the same period.”

Alternatively, France and Sweden have “solved climate change” by expanding their electrical supply with nuclear power, according to Joshua S. Goldstein and Staffan A. Qvist, authors of How Some Countries Have Solved Climate Change and the Rest Can Follow. They believe no other source or collection of sources of energy can meet the enormous climate challenge in time.

Steven Novella, a clinical neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine and Host of the popular science podcast The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, shares the pro-nuclear position.  However, he thinks Shellenberger exaggerates the concerns over depending only on renewables without nuclear:

He essentially does to renewables what nuclear critics do to nuclear — raise potential issues and then pretend they are unsolvable. His best point is that renewables such as wind and solar rely on intermittent sources that are not energy dense, and therefore require a lot of space. This is true, and is the ultimate limiting factor of these sources of energy. But they are not a deal-breaker.

Mark Lynas, author of Nuclear 2.0: Why a Green Future Needs Nuclear Power, has been trying to change minds on nuclear power within the Green Movement for years. “It makes no sense to try to tackle carbon dioxide emissions by eliminating one of the world’s largest sources of zero-carbon power, as anti-nuclear environmentalists demand,” Lynas told the New York Times. After working with the British Meteorological Office on climate modeling, Lynas says he concluded, “The only pathway that has a good chance of delivering a manageable climate outcome (below 2 degrees centigrade of global warming) is one including a substantial deployment of new, safer nuclear power.”

Credit: Vaclav Volrab and Argonne National Laboratory

“Nuclear is also vital to supply a zero-carbon baseload — a consistent source that does not vary with the weather,” Lynas continues. With smart grids, energy efficiency and electricity storage options, renewables and nuclear can work together to create a grid with little or no carbon output. It makes no sense to think of renewables and nuclear as rivals.”

The conversation over the merits of nuclear power plants like those in Homer Simpson’s fictional Springfield will continue, but the facts do not support the public’s out-sized fears of these plants. Last year the Department of Energy released an article showing the “7 Things The Simpsons Got Wrong About Nuclear,” in which they emphasized safety. No system is perfectly safe, but nuclear power is undoubtedly among the safest.

With a ticking clock of 12 years to transform our energy infrastructure to cut our carbon emissions enough to prevent global temperatures from exceeding 1.5C, we cannot let our biases cloud our judgment, and we must make an informed decision over which scenario has the greatest risks.

AiPT! Science is co-presented by AiPT! Comics and the New York City Skeptics.


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