The solution to climate change is still seen by most environmental activists and leaders as hinging primarily on a huge ramp up of wind and solar energy, a decline in energy demand through dramatic improvements in energy efficiency, and a political consensus for putting a price on carbon in order to make fossil fuels reflect their true cost to society. The movement has spent the last 25 years pursuing these three worthy objectives and yet the climate crisis is not only getting worse, it’s getting worse at an accelerating rate.
Atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have just passed 400ppm, a 40% increase since the dawn of the industrial revolution, and are now at a level not seen in all of human history. Coal remains the most widely used source of fuel on the planet and its use is increasing faster than any other energy source. Energy demand, while increasing only moderately in the developed world, is skyrocketing in the developing world as billions of people lift themselves out of poverty and begin to live modern lives. Despite huge investments in renewable energy, the growth in wind and solar energy are not even coming close to keeping pace with the annual worldwide increase in demand, let alone doing anything to actually displace and reduce the use of fossil fuels. For all these reasons, many of us who care deeply about solving the climate crisis, including people like the worlds most respected climate scientist James Hansen, are looking favorably at advanced nuclear technology for its ability to provide prodigious amounts of non-CO2 emitting electricity at a scale that can actually replace fossil fuels, and with few of the drawbacks that plagued the old nuclear technologies of the past.
It is true that Germany has committed itself more than any other country to the goal of running the bulk of their electric grid on wind and solar energy within the next few decades. There’s a lot of understandable enthusiasm and excitement about this effort. But it’s important to be clear about what is actually being achieved and what is not. Germany can rightfully boast that 25% of its electricity now comes from renewable sources. However, half of that renewable comes from hydroelectric dams and the burning of biomass, neither of which can really be considered environmentally responsible sources of energy. It’s a common misconception that renewable energy statistics refer only to wind and solar. In reality, the vast majority of so-called renewable energy in almost every country is actually hydroelectric.
After 20 years of intense effort in building out its wind and solar capacity, with enormous and ultimately unsustainable government subsidies, Germany now gets about 5% of its electricity from solar and a little over 7% from wind – this according to German government statistics. These are extraordinary achievements to be sure, but they are not at the level advertised by many well-respected environmental leaders like Bobby Kennedy, Jr. and Bill McKibben who’ve made very public claims that Germany is now getting 50% of its electricity from solar energy, when it is not. What’s worse is that all of Germany’s gains in reducing CO2 emissions via wind and solar are being undone by their determination to shut down all of their nuclear plants, which until recently provided 18% of their electricity – while emitting no CO2. Right now, Germany continues to build new coal plants that burn the dirtiest coal on Earth (lignite) and their CO2 emissions are on the rise. Few would fault Germany for it’s bold attempt to decarbonize its electric grid with wind and solar energy. But thus far their experience proves how very difficult it is to reduce CO2 emissions with wind and solar alone.
If you actually read the fine print, it becomes apparent that the term “renewable” has been stretched to include a whole host of things that most environmentalists would be up in arms against if they were actually put into effect. In NREL’s “Renewable Electricity Futures Study”, about half of the renewable energy proposed would actually come from a massive expansion of hydropower (more than doubling current generation) and the burning of biomass (increasing production by more than ten times). The project would also require the complete replacement of the nation’s electric grid in order to accommodate this novel and intermittent distribution of energy. It would require massive energy storage solutions that have yet to be discovered and proven. It also assumes reductions in overall energy demand via energy efficiency that have never been proven to be effective.
That such an endeavor might be technically feasible with unlimited political power and unlimited funds is an interesting academic exercise, but that doesn’t make it possible, let alone likely – or as a practical matter, even all that desirable. Similar studies have been put forth since the early 1970’s but today wind power still only accounts for 3.5% of US electrical energy, and solar accounts for just 0.1%.
Energy efficiency allows us to be more productive with each unit of energy we use. But as we are able to do more with any given unit of energy, the product of that energy becomes less expensive and that in turn allows and encourages us to use more of it. Efficiency is a key component in curbing the growth of energy demand, but it has never been shown to actually reduce energy demand overall, a phenomenon that has only happened in times of economic recession.
While much of the developed world is undoubtedly wasteful in its use of energy, most of the world actually doesn’t have enough energy. Developing countries need increasing levels of energy in order to improve the health, well-being, education and living standards of their people. Economic development and its accompanying rise in energy consumption are improving people’s lives; it’s a trend we should welcome with one notable exception: the accompanying increase in CO2 emissions.
It is estimated that global energy demand will double, or perhaps even triple, by mid century. Almost all of that growth will take place in the developing world. If we’re to meet this daunting challenge without sending the climate into tailspin it will require a massive deployment of every non-CO2 emitting energy technology we know of, including nuclear.
Another factor that is likely to increase the world’s demand for energy in the coming decades is the need to desalinate seawater. We are rapidly depleting fresh water supplies all over the world with potentially catastrophic impacts on social cohesion and agricultural production. The most readily available solution to this is desalination, a process requiring vast amounts of electrical energy.
For all these reasons, it is unrealistic to imagine that overall energy demand can be reduced within the timeframe in which we need to tackle climate change.
Interestingly, there is a direct correlation between the amount of energy consumed and birthrates: birthrates are declining in developed, high energy consuming countries. Birthrates remain the highest in energy scarce sub-Saharan Africa. The two biggest factors in reducing population, it turns out, are rising living standards (which are tied closely to energy use) and urbanization – two trends that are rapidly underway throughout the world.
It’s predicted that world population will top out at around 9 billion by mid century and then gradually decline thereafter. So a less populous future awaits our descendents in the 22nd century, but we need to make it through the current population bulge without destroying the climate in order for that less populous future to come about. Getting there requires us to provide more energy to more people, not less.
There’s no such thing as an entirely risk free source of energy. They all have their plusses and minuses. It is estimated that around three million people die worldwide every year from respiratory illness as a result of our burning fossil fuels for energy, 13,000 annually in the United States alone. The oceans are dying, fish are contaminated with mercury, and CO2 is causing the climate to heat up. This in turn is beginning to dangerously impact the weather, agriculture and sea levels. For a host of reasons, continuing to burn fossil fuels is the greatest risk of all.
The manufacturing of solar panels turns out to be an incredibly toxic process requiring the mining of rare earth metals. People are complaining about noise from wind turbines and don’t want to see cherished ridgelines covered with turbines, access roads and power lines. There can be little doubt that as we scale up wind and solar beyond where it stands today at just 2% and 0.25% respectively of global electricity production, the risks and drawbacks will become more apparent with these technologies too.
Hydroelectric dams have already been placed in almost every location possible and there is little room for expansion, at least in the developed world. While they generate vast amounts of clean energy, they also do extensive environmental damage to rivers and fisheries.
With nuclear, there are currently around 440 commercial nuclear power plants operating throughout the world supplying about 14% of the world’s electricity. Among them, there have been 3 significant accidents in the 50-year history of commercial nuclear power: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. Only Chernobyl has resulted in the loss of human life from exposure to radiation. And according to the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and a half a dozen other UN agencies who’ve studied the aftermath of Chernobyl exhaustively, less than 60 deaths can be attributed to that worst of all possible accidents. A possible 4,000 additional premature deaths from cancer are predicted over the course of a lifetime among the 600,000 people most affected, resulting in an increased risk of about 3% above what would normally be expected had the accident not occurred.
This is not in anyway to downplay the disaster at Chernobyl. But the experience there does indicate that the worst imaginable accident with nuclear energy, even at this poorly designed Soviet reactor that had no containment structure, has not caused anything like the level of mass casualties claimed by many leading anti-nuclear activists and renewable energy advocates who want to paint nuclear energy as an unacceptably dangerous technology.
The latest UN studies at Fukushima indicate that the long term health risks to those exposed to the fallout from the reactor meltdowns will be vanishingly small, so much so that they may never be detectible. Not a single person has died or suffered any known health effects as a result of the radiation releases at Fukushima.
That said, we need to move away from using reactors in which this sort of accident is even possible, however remote such events might be. The fact remains that a great many people have had their lives totally uprooted as a result of these disasters. But we will never build reactors like these again. Within the next few decades, they will all be phased out in favor of newer, dramatically safer designs.
The good news is that we already know how to make nuclear reactors that are passively safe and can’t melt down. Even the large-scale reactors that are currently under construction (so-called Generation III reactors) have passive safety features that are many times more robust than anything that has come before. The next generation of reactors, Generation IV designs, are designed such that the very physics of them makes a meltdown all but impossible. This new technology has been fully developed and proven, as was demonstrated in the film with the Integral Fast Reactor in 1986.
There’s no totally risk free magic bullet solution to all our energy needs. But our greatest risk by far would be to deploy a portfolio of the non-CO2 emitting sources that don’t actually meet the challenge of moving us away from burning fossil fuels and to squander the small window of opportunity we have to solve this problem. We have to get this right because there are no second chances.
Not at all. Advances in nuclear technology have certainly been thwarted by the decision in 1994 to terminate US Government funded R&D in this field, but that has not stopped other countries and private companies from applying the fruits of today’s technological revolution to nuclear energy.
Indeed, there’s a renaissance in reactor design currently underway that’s going in a very different direction from the Light Water Reactor (LWR) that was first commercialized in 1950’s and is now the dominant design around the world. There are exciting developments in the use of Thorium as a fuel source (LFTR) which shows enormous promise, particularly in terms of safety and proliferation concerns. There are small modular reactors (SMR’s), two of which have just received support from the Obama administration to move toward commercialization. The Integral Fast Reactor (IFR), the prototype for which is featured in the documentary, has been designed for commercial roll out by GE and is called the PRISM. Bill Gates is investing heavily in a design called the Traveling Wave Reactor. All of these reactor designs, and many more, offer extraordinary improvements in safety, waste management (most are actually fueled by today’s nuclear waste), proliferation resistance, and cost competitiveness.
Today’s reactors are large scale, long-term construction projects requiring very large up front capital costs. This, more than any other factor, has inhibited the further expansion of nuclear power around the world. If nuclear power is to have a future, then the costs associated with bringing reactors on line will have to come down from where they are today. Yet surprisingly, installed nuclear energy in the United States is among our cheapest sources of electricity. America’s nuclear power plants are cash cows for the big utility companies that own them because their construction costs are paid off and the fuel and operating costs are relatively low. With nuclear, like with hydro-electric dams, the initial investment is great, but those costs when amortized over many decades render an entirely different picture in terms of economics. A big difficulty is that private, unregulated energy markets do not encourage long term energy infrastructure investments.
Current nuclear power construction projects underway around the world consist of the very first of this new Generation III design ever built and have yet to benefit from the economies of scale that come with successive builds. The two EPR reactor projects in France and Finland are wildly over budget and behind schedule. Yet the same reactors currently being built in China are both on budget and on schedule. It remains to be seen whether the two AP-1000 reactors currently under construction in Georgia come in as planned.
The best way to make nuclear energy cheaper is through the mass production of components, the utilization of off-the-shelf technology, and simpler designs utilizing passive safety: this is the promise of many of these new advanced designs. Political and economic commitments must be made to build them for the price to come down, just as we’ve done with wind and solar energy, which have been heavily subsidized in order to develop a viable market capable of benefiting from economies of scale.
It’s important to remember too that barring an international agreement to put a price on carbon (that presently shows no sign of materializing) both renewable energy and nuclear power will face challenges in competing with fossil fuels. Until recently, it was assumed that the cost of fossil fuels would continue to rise as we deplete known resources (remember “the end of oil”?). In fact, as our technology advances in all areas, so too does our ability to locate and extract fossil fuels from ever more remote locations – the current controversy over the XL Pipeline and hydrofracking in the Marcellus Shale are but two recent newsworthy examples. The cost issue is affects all non-CO2 emitting sources of energy, not just nuclear
France now produces 80% of its electricity from nuclear energy. It has the cheapest electrical rates in Europe, the cleanest air in the industrialized world, and per-capita CO2 emissions that are half that of neighboring Germany despite that country’s long-standing commitment to develop a robust green energy sector. The good news is that France was able to almost fully decarbonize its electric grid in just 20 years. They did so by using standardized designs and the mass production of components. Today, they are a global leader in the field of nuclear energy.
China currently has over two dozen large-scale nuclear power plants under construction and they have another 100 planned to be on line by 2030. India too is making a big push to increase its nuclear capacity. This should be welcome news to anyone concerned about climate change, and it proves that scalability is not the problem. It simply requires the political will to do so.
Nuclear waste is not nearly so big of a problem as many of us have been led to believe. Volumetrically speaking there’s surpringly little of it. As is shown in the film, if you took all of the nuclear waste created by all the commercial nuclear power plants in the United States and gathered it together in one spot, it would fill one football field from end to end to a height of about 8 feet. The long-lived waste, the stuff that remains radioactive for many thousands of years and that everyone fears and deplores, would only fill the one-yard line.
More importantly, all of the waste from today’s Light Water Reactors can be used as fuel for the next generation of reactors that will hopefully be coming on line in a few decades. In fact, that football field’s worth of waste described above, if used in next generation fast reactors, could power everything in the United States (including the entire transportation sector) for a thousand years! In other words we need never to mine any uranium again. Britain has enough nuclear waste to power the entire United Kingdom for 500 years! So we should not think of this material as waste at all – it’s fuel. The small amount of waste that’s left over from using next generation fast reactors has a half-life of only a few hundred years.
The argument that nuclear power is immoral because we’re leaving a toxic legacy for a hundred thousand years is simply no longer true. The real toxic legacy we’re leaving is the rapid build up of atmospheric CO2 and the irreversible damage to the climate that will ensue if we don’t reverse this trend within our lifetime.
Not really. They’re actually a lot less attractive to terrorists than a great many other things high value industrial targets. The containment domes are remarkably resistant to a plane crash – a jet aircraft would likely just crumple upon impact. And even if the containment dome was damaged the reactor is incased within its own protective reactor vessel. All radioactive material exists behind extensive security and does not render itself to easy theft and removal by terrorist attackers. And the dry cask storage tanks for waste are proven to be virtually indestructible.
Ironically, the only known terrorist attack on a nuclear power plant was carried out in the 1980’s by anti-nuclear greens in France using a rocket propelled grenade purchased from the infamous terrorist Carlos the Jackal.They failed to do any damage.
It is true that the knowledge involved with making nuclear energy involves much of the same knowledge required in making nuclear weapons. Since the dawn of the nuclear age it has been tempting to think that we could put the genie back in the bottle and to rid humanity of this knowledge altogether.
But this knowledge is already out there around the world and is not likely to ever disappear. Thirty-eight countries now have the ability to develop a nuclear weapon within a decade or so if they chose to, and only 9 countries actually have nuclear weapons. That only two countries in the world are currently attempting to develop nuclear weapons, Iran and North Korea, is a testament to the effectiveness of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Both countries have civilian nuclear power plants, but neither are using their power plants to make a nuclear weapon. Iran is notoriously using thousands of centrifuges to refine pure uranium to a weaponized level of 90%, far above the 3% level used in nuclear power plants. Both countries are suffering crippling international sanctions for their illegal activities.
A little known fact is that civilian nuclear power is actually helping us to get rid of nuclear weapons. Thanks to international negotiations carried out by the Clinton Administration, 10% of American electricity (half of America’s nuclear power) currently comes from uranium derived from former Soviet nuclear warheads. Soon we’ll be turning America’s nuclear arsenal into electricity as well. With the advent of advanced reactors we will be able to forever rid the world of its stockpile of weapons grade plutonium by transmuting it in the process of generating electricity.
These are promising developments, but it does not completely obviate the fact that certain countries are not ready to be given access to nuclear technology for a variety of reasons. Fortunately, the vast majority of CO2 is emitted by the very same nations that already have nuclear weapons.
If they alone made a big push to decarbonize their energy sector using nuclear power we would be a long way towards solving the climate crisis. As other developing nations advance, they too could one day employ nuclear power under the same strict international controls that have so far proven remarkably effective at preventing weapons diversion. In short, we don’t need to employ nuclear energy everywhere in order to dramatically reduce CO2 emissions.
This film was produced completely independently and I had sole discretion over all creative and editorial decisions. It was funded in large part by Impact Partners, the documentary funding group behind such hits as “The Cove”, “The Island President” and “Queen of Versailles”. Additional funding came from individuals and foundations who have certified that they have no interest, investments or ties to the nuclear power industry.
They are Democrats, Independents and even a few Republicans. A great many of our funders are involved in high technology industries, mainly in Silicon Valley. They understand complex technologies, they understand the need for massive amounts of energy, they’re passionate about solving climate change, and they’re committed to making a positive difference in the world. A complete list of funders can be found in the online press kit on our website.
That has not been the experience of most of us environmentalists who’ve changed our minds on this issue. As more and more people begin to speak out on this issue, many after seeing Pandora’s Promise, being pro-nuclear is becoming less and less of a contentious issue. Only the most hardcore anti-nuclear activists are unwilling to discuss this issue or would put a friendship in jeopardy over it.
What we’ve found is that talking openly about nuclear energy sparks a fascinating conversation and gets people very excited and wanting to learn more. Most people know deep down inside that it’s unlikely that we’ll ever really power the entire world with wind and solar alone. They tend to feel quite pessimistic and even a little apocalyptic about the future when the issue of climate change comes up, but the discussion of nuclear energy lifts that cloud because it offers a very real sense of hope and optimism about the future.
Nothing about being pro-nuclear need diminish your support for wind and solar and energy efficiency. Those are all vital elements of any fully effective way forward. There are places where wind is the best option, places where solar makes sense, places that are favorable to geothermal energy or tidal energy. There are also places where nuclear makes the most sense. All of it will be needed in order to solve the climate problem. More and more people are coming to see this as the most sensible approach.
Pandora’s Promise is a film that explores the very personal stories how and why a growing number of environmentalists who, persuaded by the best scientific data, have converted to the view that nuclear energy has an essential role to play in averting a climate catastrophe. This story of conversion mirrors my own personal journey as well.
I was very anti-nuclear and changed my mind in light of the failure of traditional solutions favored by the environmental movement to effectively tackle climate change. Like myself, the people interviewed in the film were passionate and informed opponents of nuclear power before they looked into it deeper and had the courage to change their minds about it. The first third of the film articulates the case against nuclear power and is in fact highly critical of the way in which this technology was initially commercialized in the United States. In the film I visit the sites of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima and explore the very real fears that arose as a consequence of those accidents. In this sense, the film fully acknowledges the anti-nuclear argument without introducing characters who, as implacable opponents, tend to see nuclear energy as an absolute evil.
The film is unapologetic in having a point of view. But it’s a view that is grounded in hard, peer-reviewed science, not anecdotes, mythology and outdated political dogma. Should Al Gore also be criticized for not including interviews with credible climate skeptics in An Inconvenient Truth? Of course not.
What this film does not do is include information, however widely believed, that has no basis in scientific fact. Like with the climate denialisits, most of those who purport to be leading figures in the anti-nuclear movement traffic in fear, conspiracy theories and information that simply does not stand up to scientific scrutiny, as is clearly pointed out in the film.
If you are persuaded that we should move forward with a new generation of nuclear power plants as part of an energy transition to tackle climate change, then welcome to the club. What you can do is to get others to see this film. Public acceptance of this technology will come about when friends talk to friends about how they changed their minds.
Every great movement in human history began this way. Only by tackling hard truths and by looking squarely at what’s working and what isn’t, can we hope to tackle the climate crisis.
Environmental leaders also need to be confronted on why they claim on the one hand that climate change is an existential threat, and yet on the other that it’s not so much of a threat that we need to consider using nuclear energy. At present the only way they justify their position is by wildly exaggerating the capacity of wind and solar energy to replace fossil fuels and by demonizing nuclear technology as too costly, too dangerous, and unnecessary. There’s no question that they’ve had extraordinary success. But at what cost? Are the fossil fuel companies on the run? Are we solving the climate crisis? Clearly not.
We need a change in the leadership and the mission of the environmental movement if it is to live up to its name in this new century. So be the change you want to have happen.
We can fix this. We must fix this. It is the great challenge of our generation and it is one for which we will be praised or cursed by future generations, depending on the decisions we make today.