Climate of Fear XXI.

If the world does not cut carbon dioxide emission by 45 percent by 2030 and by 100 percent by 2050, then we can expect many extreme weather events.  These will include droughts, forest fires, floods, and storms.  Thus says the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).[1]  However, experts believe that it will take decades to raise wind and solar energy sources to a level where they can supplant carbon-burning energy sources.

Wind and solar currently provide about 8 percent of America’s energy.  Expanding its infrastructure could encounter difficulties.  For example, in California, the amount of land needed for a solar farm is vast: 450 times the space needed for a nuclear plant.  Yes, but solar and wind infrastructure is cheap!  Well, no.  The infrastructure (cement, wiring, panels) cost about the same to produce about the same amount of electricity.

Germany swore off nuclear power in favor of renewable energy sources.  Today, Germany derives 38 percent of its energy from renewable sources.  Germany switched to burning more carbon during the transition period away from nuclear in order to prevent a huge slump in energy supply and a huge price spike.  As a result, its carbon emissions haven’t fallen and Germany’s electricity prices are higher than any country in Europe.

If you compare the cost in human lives between nuclear power and carbon-burning, you find that no one died from Three Mile Island, one person died from Fukushima, and sixty people died directly from Chernobyl.[2]  In comparison, experts suggest that seven million people die every year as a result of burning carbon.

So, why not use nuclear energy?  Nuclear already provides about 20 percent of American energy.  Today, Sweden gets 40 percent of its energy from nuclear power.  It is a proven technology, while wind and solar face a bunch of problems.  The initial investment is high—about $7 billion—but the subsequent maintenances costs are very low.  It could be rapidly scaled-up by building reactors in Maine.[3]

Nuclear waste constitutes the main road-block to using nuclear power.  Spent fuel rods from reactors can continue to emit dangerous radiation for tens of thousands of years.   The pre-terrorist solution was to cool the rods in water, then to seal them up in concrete lockers.  The current solution is to bury them underground.  However, NIMBY[4] resistance put a stop to the Yucca Mountain facility in Nevada States.  Barack Obama needed Nevada’s electoral votes to wind the presidency, so he promised to stall the ball.  Ultimately, he killed it.

Still, America is a country with a relatively stable energy demand.  What about Still-Industrializing Countries (SICs) like China and India?  Nuclear power appears to offer the only alternative to carbon-burning in these countries.  At the same time, the world’s worst nuclear accident—Chernobyl in the Soviet Union—resulted from an Actually-Existing-Third-World-Country betting on nuclear power.  This is a cheap, scary alternative to the “Green New Deal.”

[1] “Nuclear power and climate change,” The Week, 15 March 2019.

[2] Several thousand emergency personnel died from their heroic efforts to contain the disaster.  The heroism of the then-Soviet first-responders needs to be acknowledged.

[3] Hardly anyone lives there; the prevailing winds would carry any accident-produced waste over the Canadian Maritimes and the North Atlantic.  OK, that’s cold on my part.  What’s your solution?  Eastern Montana?

[4] Not In My Back Yard.