Top Climate Scientists Urge Support of Nuclear Power

Letter Calls for ‘Fresh Approach’ to Nuclear in the 21st Century

On Sunday, November 3, four top climate and energy scientists, James Hansen, Ken Caldeira, Kerry Emanuel, and Tom Wigley, released an open letter calling on world leaders to advocate for the development and deployment of safer nuclear power systems. The letter begins:

To those influencing environmental policy but opposed to nuclear power:

As climate and energy scientists concerned with global climate change, we are writing to urge you to advocate the development and deployment of safer nuclear energy systems. We appreciate your organization’s concern about global warming, and your advocacy of renewable energy. But continued opposition to nuclear power threatens humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change.

The twin challenge of rising global energy demand, which must continue to grow to provide the needs of developing economies, and the urgency of addressing climate change has led Hansen, Caldeira, Emanuel, and Wigley to explicitly call for new nuclear technologies that will simultaneously expand energy supply while cutting greenhouse gas emissions. The conclusion: “The time has come for a fresh approach to nuclear power in the 21st century.”

Renewables like solar and wind will play a role in the US energy mix, continue the letter’s authors, but they “cannot scale up fast enough to deliver cheap and reliable power at the scale the global economy requires.” Embracing nuclear is one of the only ways to counteract the impending threat of climate change quickly enough, particularly given that global energy demand is expected to double by 2050 and triple or quadruple by the end of this century.

“While it may be theoretically possible to stabilize the climate without nuclear power,” write the scientists, “in the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power.”

Critics of nuclear, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, have already responded to the letter. NRDC spokesman Bob Deans told Voices of America the world gains nothing from "substituting one set of environmental nightmares for another." Deans added that the NRDC believes the United States should invest in making homes, workplaces, and vehicles more energy efficient, so that people can do "more with less." He also highlighted China's investment in wind and solar power as a positive step by one of the world's top polluters.

At the time of the letter’s release, James Hansen told the Associate Press it’s not enough for environmentalists to simply oppose fossil fuels and only promote renewable energy. "They’re cheating themselves if they keep believing this fiction ‘that all we need is renewable energy such as wind and solar,’” he said.

Kerry Emanuel seconded this view in the AP article, saying that the signers aren’t opposed to renewable energy sources but want environmentalists to understand that “realistically, they cannot on their own solve the world’s energy problems.”

That four leading climate scientists have now publicly and explicitly called for support of the development of nuclear energy is sure to expose what Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus argued in TIME as the climate-energy paradox of the traditional Left: the claim that carbon emissions pose a catastrophic threat to human civilization while opposing the two technologies (nuclear and natural gas) capable of immediately and significantly reducing them. In fact, according to a recent Breakthrough analysis, since 1950, the switch from dirtier energy to zero-carbon emitting nuclear power accounted for a full half of the total emissions reductions, or 28.1 billion tonnes over the 60-year period.

By penning this letter, the authors are effectively "putting their reputations on the line to do something that the ultra-greens regard as treason," Stanford University Nobel-winning physicist Burton Richter told CNN. "We've got four top guns in the environmental movement telling [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel, 'You're wrong to shut down nuclear,'" said Richter. "I think that's a relatively big deal."

The letter acknowledges that today’s nuclear plants are “far from perfect” and that no energy system is “without downsides.” However, innovation and economies of scale can make future generations of nuclear plants safer and cheaper. Furthermore, “modern nuclear technology can reduce proliferation risks and solve the waste disposal problem by burning current waste and using fuel more efficiently.” With a nod to the historical antinuclear movement of the 1970s, the scientists ask that all energy system decisions be “based on facts, and not on emotions and biases that do not apply to 21st century nuclear technology.”

The letter’s authors are James Hansen, a former top NASA scientist and professor at Columbia University; Ken Caldeira, of the Carnegie Institution; Kerry Emanuel, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Tom Wigley, of the University of Adelaide in Australia.

According to CNN, there are 65 commercially operating nuclear plants in the United States, including 104 reactors. Five new reactors are currently being built, in Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee. In 2012, utilities permanently shut down four others and plan to take a fifth out of service in 2014. At least two other planned projects have been suspended.

Read the full letter online here: