Column: Expand use of nuclear energy to combat global warming
The Amazon inferno, environmental deregulation, lackluster ideas such as the “Green New Deal” — all point to a deepening climate crisis.
Mahalo for reading the Honolulu Star-Advertiser!
You're reading a premium story. Read the full story with our Print & Digital Subscription.
Already a subscriber? Log in now to continue reading this story.
The Amazon inferno, environmental deregulation, lackluster ideas such as the “Green New Deal” — all point to a deepening climate crisis. Meanwhile, the demand for energy grows as rising middle classes in Asia, Africa and South America want and deserve the lives affluent Westerners have had since World War II: a lifestyle largely responsible for our carbon-rich atmosphere today.
Even more fossil fuel (FF) power plants and vehicles are on the horizon. Solar and wind power cannot sate the 24/7 energy addiction of the existing and prospective affluent. The inconvenient truth is that we don’t want to inconvenience ourselves to stop global warming (GW). Accordingly, we’re devising Band-aid strategies when triage is needed.
Carbon capture and storage remains an expensive and challenging proposition. Blocking the sun with atmospheric aerosols poses a smorgasbord of unintended consequences. Our circumstances require an all-out assault on the root causes of climate change while simultaneously ensuring uninterrupted energy flow.
One viable option remains, actually an old idea: A mostly-electric world economy using proven nuclear fission power on a global scale — safe, state-of-the-art and smart cookie-cutter reactors built by U.S. and foreign companies working together.
Atmospheric carbon is the enemy. Nuclear reactors produce none. A regulated nuclear power industry poses much less risk to humanity than the continued use of carbon-rich FFs. Since electricity and mobility are the lifeblood of modern society, the nuclear option satisfies our thirst for energy while averting apocalyptic temperature rise or the social and economic chaos of limited FF usage.
The U.S. must take the lead to incentivize the phased transition from FFs to a nuclear-electric economy. Other nations will follow. Most private and public transportation, heating, cooling and industrial activity must run on electricity (air and water travel excepted).
We must help Big Oil transform into Big Nuclear, Big Auto into Big EVs (electric vehicles). Realistically, it’ll take beyond 2050 to phase out most FF usage. Even if only a temporary, century-long stratagem, the nuclear option protects the future and quality of life until another realistic solution emerges.
What about nuclear accidents, terrorism, proliferation and waste? Improved reactor designs have reduced the risk of accidents to insignificant levels. Bolstered security will prevent sabotage and theft of radioactive materials.
Most nations and all terrorist groups lack the wherewithal and resources to pursue bomb development; nations with weapons will prevent the have-nots from pursuing their own. Radioactive waste will be processed, recycled and eventually buried in hardened sites. Deserts may offer ideal burial areas since GW is transforming many of them into hot, dry dead zones. Better dead zones than a dead planet. Nations without suitable burial sites will compensate those that accept their waste.
Here in Hawaii, a nuclear power plant is unlikely if the state stays its course to minimize fossil-fuel usage through solar, wind and geothermal energy development. If trade winds decline significantly, however, wind power output will drop while electricity demand rises for air conditioning. Accordingly, the state must periodically review its strategy to account for changes in worst-case local warming.
The nuclear option will not stall GW for quite some time. The world must do more: produce and buy high-mileage gas vehicles (again) until EV infrastructure matures; stop running devices 24/7; revitalize solar, wind, geothermal, tidal and hydroelectric power production; stop deforestation; and more.
Most critically, our indifference to the future must end. Climate change denial and scorched-Earth policies will only accelerate and intensify the effects of GW. It’s time for the U.S. to assume a climate leadership role and jump-start the nuclear option. The climate clock is ticking.
Oahu resident Frank Camelio is a retired U.S. Navy captain and author; he commanded Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard, 2004-2007.