As a climate scientist who daily confronts the unacceptable risks associated with anthropogenic climate change, I believe the welfare of civilization depends on the rapid development and deployment of economical, carbon-free energy, perhaps supplemented by carbon capture technologies. It is important to understand that this is not merely a question of decarbonizing existing energy production but ensuring that the expected and hoped-for rapid development of the economies of currently poor nations will rely on an expansion of energy production that is free of carbon. This can only happen if low-carbon energy sources are economical. It is also vital to recognize that a significant fraction of that energy production is to meet the large industrial demand for high-temperature heat, which cannot be met, or met economically, by electrical power.
Experience and simple math teach us that the most rapid and economical route to carbon-free energy involves judicious combinations of renewable and nuclear energy. Nations, like Sweden and France, that successfully and rapidly decarbonized their electricity production did so with combinations of nuclear and hydro-power. Scenarios relying on a single power source are inadvisable and usually unfeasible. Grid-scale renewables without baseload require massive amounts of energy storage, and the current cost of such storage is roughly a factor of ten too large to be feasible. While one can always hope for a reduction of storage costs, it would be unwise to bet the future of civilization on it. Moreover, renewables cannot feasibly supply the high-temperature heat needed for many industrial applications.
Renewables and nuclear power need each other, and we need both if we are serious about mitigating climate change. If we are to make substantial progress, it is vital that environmentalists re-examine their historical opposition to nuclear, recognize that, statistically, it is the safest form of power we have ever developed, and see that what little risk there is pales in comparison to the risks of climate change. Every day that we delay the deployment of nuclear power, or hasten the closure of existing reactors, is a day by which we prolong the life of coal, oil, and gas. If we in the West refuse to advance nuclear power, then growing global demand for it as a solution to climate change will be met by China and Russia, as is already happening.
It is time that environmentalists cast aside old grudges and shake hands with their former foe, recognizing it as a friend in the war on climate change. Join me and many other climate scientists and environmentalists as Greens for Nuclear Energy.
Kerry A. Emanuel
Professor of Atmospheric Science, MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts. December 2020