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Nuclear Energy Is Not The Enemy

Haley Zaremba

11,000 scientists have declared a climate emergency and warned of “catastrophic threat” to humanity and “untold suffering” in a paper published this week in Oxford University Press’ peer-reviewed BioScience journal. The paper, titled “World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency” begins: “Scientists have a moral obligation to clearly warn humanity of any catastrophic threat and to ‘tell it like it is.’ On the basis of this obligation and the graphical indicators presented below, we declare, with more than 11,000 scientist signatories from around the world, clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency.”

When science has been telling us not just for decades but for over a hundred years that human production of greenhouse gases will cause global warming, why are we still so resistant to decarbonizing our energy industry? We have the technology and we have the urgency, so what’s holding us back? 

Solar and wind power are cheaper than ever, issues of variability have been addressed by a booming energy storage industry and the implementation of Artificial Intelligence, and nuclear power remains one of the most efficient energy-producing methods known to man--and it has zero carbon emissions. Plenty of experts have extolled the virtues of nuclear energy and its potential to save the planet from catastrophic climate change--so why is the nuclear industry dying in places like the United States and Japan?

A huge part of the reason is that nuclear just has bad optics. Thanks to high-profile nuclear disasters like the tragedies that took place in Fukushima, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island, the public simply distrusts the safety of nuclear power and politicians have heard their constituents loud and clear - never mind the fact that fossil fuels are ultimately much more deadly.

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In fact, the deaths related to nuclear meltdown are so low that climate scientists Pushker Kharecha and James Hanson discovered that overall the use of nuclear energy actually saves lives. Their study “Prevented mortality and greenhouse gas emissions from historical and projected nuclear power”, published by NASA, found that to date, nuclear power has already saved a whopping two million lives from air pollution-related deaths resulting from the contamination that would have been produced by fossil fuels. As Oilprice reported earlier this year, “Nuclear power is an incredibly clean form of energy thanks to its staggering efficiency.

The uranium used to produce nuclear power has the ability to create a whopping one million times more heat than equal masses of fossil fuels or even gunpowder. Nuclear power has the valuable ability to create massive amounts of heat without creating fire, and therefore it produces no smoke. This means that it’s a much, much cleaner alternative as compared to fossil fuels, which cause seven million premature deaths per year (according to data provided by the World Health Organization) thanks to the massive amount of smoke produced by the industry.”

In another shocking study published last month, a team of scientists determined that Japan’s move away from nuclear energy in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, fueled by public outrage and pressure to shutter existing nuclear power plants, also cost human lives. As summarized by the Financial Times, “while closure clearly obviated the possibility of further nuclear accidents, it did not come without cost. Japan depended on atomic power for a third of its electricity. The need to restart mothballed fossil-fuel plants led to a sharp spike in the power price. It rose by as much as 38 percent in some regions between January 2011 and the following year [...] this led to an increase in mortality, especially among the old. They estimate that more than 4,500 may have died as a result of the high prices that followed the nuclear shutdown, far more than the estimated 1,232 whose deaths are directly attributed to the accident — mainly as a result of the subsequent evacuation.”

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The study, titled “Be Cautious with the Precautionary Principle: Evidence from Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Accident” therefore concluded that in the very attempt to protect the public against what were perceived to be the outsized dangers of nuclear energy, the Japanese government ultimately exposed its public to even more harm, and in many cases, even death. What’s more, as the Financial Times points out, “Japan is not the only example of such an overreaction. Germany also responded to Fukushima, despite tsunamis not being much of a risk along the Baltic coastline. Angela Merkel announced the accelerated closure of its nuclear plants.”

These deaths are nothing, however, compared to the potential human and environmental loss that is around the corner due to catastrophic climate change if we don’t wean ourselves off of fossil fuels in a big hurry. As many scientists and experts argue, we are doing ourselves a grave injustice by demonizing nuclear at a moment when it is one of the best solutions we have. Perfect it is not, but it’s a lot better than the alternative. 

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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