Reducing carbon emissions will require nuclear power

I’d like to live in a world where people prize culture and the environment more than their personal possessions; a world in which people are not afflicted by the disease of materialism; a world in which people do not strive for the false freedom of absolute autonomy but can see in mutual reliance, shared strength; a world which invests in people’s creative capacities while tempering their destructive propensities. In other words, a world so far removed from the one in which we live, that it’s extremely difficult to discern a path that might lead from here to there. And before that path gets found — if it ever does — we are much more likely to cause irreparable damage to the planet through our insatiable appetites.

Hitting the breaks on carbon emissions may, with the help of nuclear power, be a goal far easier to attain in the short run than the radical transformation of human values that will be necessary for long-term sustainability.

Rachel Pritzker writes: Last week a leaked draft of a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that climate change will have severe ramifications for the global food supply, making it harder for crops to survive and leading to rising food prices.

This report, scheduled for publication in March, provides the latest evidence of the dramatic impacts that the shifting climate is already beginning to have on the planet and on human societies.

Clearly, climate change is a global challenge unlike any other we face, which is why I, along with a small but growing number of progressives, support a unique and potentially surprising solution to it.

It is time for policymakers to recognize that nuclear power must be a robust part of our nation’s energy plan to reduce carbon emissions.

These may seem like strange words coming from a liberal whose family has been active in progressive politics, and who grew up on a Wisconsin goat farm in a home heated by wood fires. Like many of my fellow progressives, I care deeply about the environment and the future of our planet, which is precisely why I do not think we should be reflexively shutting the door on a technology that may be able to help address global climate change.

Energy production is the largest single contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions. Some people believe that we can solve climate change by reducing global energy demand and switching to solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources. But, as I’ve seen first hand in Latin America, people in the developing world are consuming an increasing amount of energy as they seek to live the modern lives that we in the West enjoy. As a result, studies show that energy demand is actually poised to triple, or even quadruple, over the next century.

As much as we might instinctively prefer renewable energy sources like solar and wind to meet this energy demand, last year solar provided a mere 0.1 percent of America’s electricity, while wind provided just 3.5 percent — and that is after at least $34 billion was funneled into clean energy projects from the Obama stimulus package.

Meanwhile, 19% of U.S. electricity comes from nuclear power plants; that number rises to 60% among clean energy sources.

We need all the help we can get from renewable energy, but it’s a risky bet that wind and solar alone will be able to provide 100% of America’s energy, let alone meet a global energy demand three times the size it is today. [Continue reading…]

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4 thoughts on “Reducing carbon emissions will require nuclear power

  1. Steve Zerger

    Humans simply don’t have the capacity to handle nuclear technology without stumbling into catastrophe.

    Guy McPherson (I know, he’s a bit of a crank) has a good bit of black humor in his talks. At one point he notes optimistically that IPCC projections don’t factor in economic collapse which is due any time now. He deadpans: “The positive aspects of collapse are that there is no food on the grocery store shelves, no fuel at the filling station, no water coming out of the municipal taps, and no electricity when you flip the light switch….The downside is that hundreds of nuclear power plants will melt down uncontrollably and spew massive amounts of radiation into the atmosphere.”

    Humans must understand their limitations as a first condition of survival, or they simply won’t survive.

  2. Steve Zerger

    How many times have we heard this siren song of the next great technological savior? If only some evil cabal of knuckle-dragging environmentalists weren’t scheming to ruin us all!

  3. Paul Woodward

    Steve – based on the comments you’ve made on these issues over the years, I’ve got the impression that the only thing that might save the planet would be the end of the human race. Even if that happened to be objectively true, it doesn’t amount to a “solution” that will garner any support other than from those who are convinced that humanity is already on an irreversible path towards self-destruction. Yet for anyone who truly believes that, why engage in any debate on the issue? Our fate is supposedly sealed.

    To tar all proponents of nuclear power with the same brush is to ignore who they include. People like James Lovelock, James Hansen, George Monbiot, Michael Shellenberger, Mark Lynas, and Stewart Brand. These are all people who have raised public awareness about the danger of climate change, and the threat it poses to the planet. They are not proponents of a great technological savior.

    Environmentalists do not all march in lockstep and neither do proponents of nuclear power, and to pretend that they do is really just an emotive gambit that serves to stifle debate.

  4. Steve Zerger


    Humans have no great significance to the planet. The planet and life on it will hardly pause to notice when we’re gone. We matter only to ourselves. This is not misanthropic.

    We may indeed be on the way out. And it may be too late to do anything about it. But if so, then we owe it to ourselves to come to a rational understanding of our place on this planet. Theists and atheists alike are not immune to the will to power.

    Thanks for putting up with my occasional rantings on your site. I mostly just do it for the benefit I get from formulating my thoughts.

    By the way, I am not equipped to evaluate nuclear technology. The best I can do is read the Wiki page on fast nuclear reactors. It doesn’t look like a magic bullet.

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