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Debating nuclear power’s role in climate change

What does terrorism have to do with climate change? A new UK ad from GreenPeace argues against nuclear power’s role in UK’s battle against climate change, timed for a new government review on energy policy. I watched it and it took more than a few minutes for the hairs on my neck to go down.

The British may be decades behind in fashion and dentistry, but are the leading example of the future debate on climate change based energy policy. With North Sea gas supplies dwindling, and the recent Russia-Ukraine spat making people nervous about energy security, it is understandable that people are examining nuclear as an option to fulfill those tough Kyoto targets. The International Herald Tribune reported yesterday that French industrial minister Francois Loos is being hounded for advice on more than his souffle technique (France is 80% powered by nuclear energy, the highest per-capita rate in the world).

So what’s the issue? Safety is one — something the Greenpeace activists get squarely to work on, although in a silly alarmist manner (most reactors can withstand a direct hit, and certainly new ones would be engineered with this in mind).

Normal course of business accidents are the real issue. As a child in Britain, I remember a month without milk due to the Chernobyl fallout, several hundred miles away. For an eerie look at what the “dead zone” near the reactor looks like 20 years later, check out this motorcycle diary. I am sure other readers have memories of 3 Mile Island, or others on the long Wikipedia list. Clearly, safety has improved over the years, but the public is understandably skeptical of new plants.

This leads to the bigger issue about nuclear’s role in climate change — timing. Currently, it takes about 10 years for a new nuclear plant to be placed on the electricity grid. During this decade, however, the world’s energy demand is predicted to grow 22%. Where is that energy going to come from? Given we have a decade or so to stabilize carbon emissions, should we focus our energies on expensive future technologies with intense public safety issues, or deploying real solutions to climate change today? With available wind power sites currently able to power six times the earth’s energy needs, I know where I’d like to see us fighting our public safety debates.

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