On December 4, 2015, during COP21, Energy for Humanity hosted a press conference at which four leading climate scientists provided statements explaining why they believe that nuclear energy must be included in the effort to reduce CO2 emissions from the the power sources currently used to enable our modern, increasingly prosperous society.
The effort is too important to be addressed with a set of options limited by politics and vested interests instead of the best available science and engineering.
Kirsty Gogan, co-founder of Energy for Humanity, hosted the event and introduced the scientists. The speakers are, in order of appearance:
Ken Caldeira: Department of Global Ecology, Carnegie Institution for Sciences, Stanford, CA: environmental science of climate, carbon, and energy.
Kerry Emanuel: MIT, meteorology: atmospheric convection and the mechanisms acting to intensify hurricanes.
Tom Wigley: U. of Adelaide, Australia: mathematical physicist, carbon science modeling
James Hansen: former head of NASA: atmospheric chemistry: climate
Note: Earlier in December, Atomic Insights published an article that included an embed of the full press event, including the lengthy Q&A session. We promised a few additional articles highlighting key portions of the event.
This post focuses on the scientists’ opening statements and includes a transcript for those who find video or audio to be less useful than text.
Kirsty Gogan: I’m really honored to be here today. My name is Kirsty Gogan. I’m Executive Director of Energy for Humanity. We’re a new environmental NGO. Our focus is on two of the great environmental and humanitarian challenges that we face in this century.
How to dramatically cut carbon emissions to avoid catastrophic climate change in our own lifetimes and that of our children and secondly, lifting billions of people out of poverty to achieve the quality of life that we take for granted.
Both of these challenges have one thing in common, the energy that we use to power our world.
Ken Caldeira: Many years ago, I was protesting against nuclear power at the Shoreham Nuclear Plant on Long Island and I was arrested for protesting nuclear power. At that time, I thought, we had bioenergy and some wind and solar and that would be enough to solve the problem.
I’ve come to see now that the magnitude of the problem is so great that we can’t afford to leave technologies unused that can potentially help.
There’s really only one technology that I know of that can provide carbon free power when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing at the scale modern civilization requires and that is nuclear power. And whatever you think of nuclear power, we need to let it compete on its own merits given an appropriate regulatory environment and a sensible, cost competitive market situation.
And we shouldn’t discriminate against individual technologies. It’s not about either/or, we’re not talking about whether we favor solar power, wind or nuclear power; I’m in favor of anything that can prevent climate change, protect the environment and allow poor people to get food and health care and education
The basic plea here is let’s focus on the climate agenda, and the climate agenda is about supplying energy in a way that does not damage our environment. We need to allow technologies to compete on their own merits.
Kerry Emanuel: All four of us have devoted substantial fractions of our professional lives to understanding the fundamental physics, chemistry, biology of our climate system. We got into it because we wanted to understand it. We didn’t have any ulterior baggage there. But that study of the climate system has very strongly led us to the conclusion that we are incurring unacceptable risks for future generations. I think that’s why we’re all here, to solve the problem.
As Ken properly said, there are a lot of people who see this as an opportunity to advance one agenda or another. Okay. We have to be conscious of that. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. But why are four climate scientists who don’t have strong backgrounds in nuclear physics here talking to you today about nuclear energy. It’s because we’re scientists; we can do the math.
If we truly are sincere about solving this problem, unless a miracle occurs, we are going to have to ramp up nuclear energy very fast. That’s the reality. That’s not my ideology. Like my friend Ken said, we don’t care whether it’s nuclear or solar or hydro. Whatever combination works. The numbers don’t add up unless you put nuclear power in the mix.
Tom Wigley: We’re not promoting nuclear energy, we’re promoting a level playing field. We’re asking everyone to make sure, because this is such a demanding, challenging problem that we can’t close the door to any type of technology. We have to give a balanced assessment eschewing ideology and preconceptions, and decide on what the energy strategy should be for the future.
James Hansen: I like to emphasize the climate impacts that are irreversible. We are at a point now where it’s extremely dangerous. We are at the point where if the climate gets much warmer, we are going to get instability of ice sheets and sea level rise of at least several meters. And the consequences of that are almost incalculable. Half of the large cities in the world are on coast fronts.
The other thing that’s irreversible is extermination of species. If we stay on business as usual, IPCC estimates that by the end of the century, we could commit a quarter to a half of the species on the planet to extinction.
Wigley: The decisions we make in the next five, ten or fifteen years will determine what’s possible after 2030. So this initial period, ratifying the INDCs, [Intended Nationally Determined Contribution] making sure we don’t just look for a renewable energy target, but we look for a clean energy target future. That’s the primary concern of this particular meeting.
Hansen: We know that using fossil fuels is not safe. It is very dangerous. And we have to face the fact that this danger of fossil fuels is staring us in the face. It’s absolutely one hundred percent certain that we’ve got a very dangerous situation. And for us to say, “Oh, we’re not going to use all the tools that we have to try to solve it” is crazy.
We have to use all of the things that we have at our disposal. Clearly nuclear power, next generation nuclear power especially, has tremendous potential to be a big part of the solution.
Emanuel: This country that we’re in ((France)) went from almost no nuclear power to 80 per cent of its electricity in something like fifteen years. What are our other options? We can scale up wind and solar pretty quickly, up to a certain limit, and then we run headlong into the barriers dictated by intermittency. And we should do that; I don’t think anybody of this group of four scientists is opposed to doing that, but we have to understand the limitations.
Hansen: When you build a new power plant, there’s no intention of closing that down. And what the science says is that we have to phase off of fossil fuels. We shouldn’t be building new fossil fuel power plants. It doesn’t make sense. It’s not consistent with what the science is telling us.
Caldeira: Science is about establishing facts, but because we’re human beings who care about other people and we care about the environments, I think all of us here feel that CO2 emissions are dangerous and that there’s no emission that’s acceptable. We should be stopping all CO2 emissions.
Aside: On this point, I made contact with Dr. Caldeira and reminded him how many vital processes produce CO2. He agreed that he had overstated his message here. End Aside.
Hansen: China and India are using tremendous amounts of power, almost all coal, for their electric plants. And there’s no way that they can power their steel mills and all the other factories that are building products for us on solar panels. And they know that. The governments of China and India know that.
They want modern, better, safer nuclear technology, and for the West not to help them is immoral. Because we’ve burned their share of the carbon budget. They’re stuck. They want to get wealthy; they want to raise people out of poverty; they need energy to do that. You can’t do it without energy. So if they don’t have an alternative, they’re going to burn coal. We should be helping them to find a clean alternative.
If you look at Sweden, for example, they have carbon-free electricity. That’s the solution to the climate problem. If we have carbon free electricity in all countries, we’ve solved the problem, because we can make liquid fuels for transportation from energy if you have abundant carbon-free electricity. And the way Sweden did it was in ten years to build the nuclear power plants and combine that with hydro-power.
So, renewable energy plus nuclear energy provides them with carbon free electricity, and that’s what we need.
It’s worth emphasizing that Dr. Hansen’s final plea includes a vision of abundant, affordable, clean electricity. He recognizes that future energy prescriptions that begin with a reduction in overall energy use on the order of 30-50% are doomed to fail because people will not make the sacrifices that would be required for those plans to work.
That is a primary reason why I tenaciously fight those who are pushing a 100% renewable agenda. They all begin by saying that our society is wasteful and that we should be able to find ways of reducing our energy use.
Some, like Amory Lovins or Mark Z. Jacobson paint impressionist visions of a future where investments made to reduce energy consumption produces a big return on investment, but they never take the time to explain that such a situation will only occur if energy is rare, expensive and getting more expensive.
I’m solidly with people like Bob Hargraves–who wrote a book about making nuclear energy cheaper than coal and who is now working with Jack Devanny, Ralph Moir, Chris Uhlick and others at ThorCon–Kirk Sorensen of Flibe, Simon Irish and David LeBlanc of Terrestrial Energy, Leslie Dewan and Mark Massey of Transatomic, Jacob DeWitte and Caroline Cochrane of UPower, Jose Reyes of NuScale, Danny Roderick of Westinghouse and all of the other atomic power developers, leaders and innovators who are working diligently to make nuclear power systems simple and safe enough so they can produce virtually unlimited quantities of clean electricity that is cheaper than power produced by burning coal.
I remain inspired by how Einstein’s famous equation [E=MC^2, with both M and C being incredibly large numbers] shows the abundant nature of energy.
I almost hate to admit it, but I’m also inspired by an old Doritos commercial staring Jay Leno where the tag line was “Eat all you want. We’ll make more.”