A book was recently published with a tantalizing title: “A Bright Future: How Some Countries Have Solved Climate Change and the Rest Can Follow.”
Upon reflection, we realized the title of the book, by Joshua Goldstein, a professor of international relations at American University, in D.C., and Staffan Qvist, a Swedish scientist and engineer, sounds enticing and is misleading.
By climate change, we mean global warming. It is not possible for some countries to solve global warming while others have yet to do so. Unless there were some sort of magic involved here.
Close. What the authors are proposing is “a quick build-out of nuclear power.”
Nuclear power plants are not built quickly in the U.S. for a variety of reasons, including safety and other regulatory hurdles as well as costs.
They are hardly built. Currently, there is just one under construction, Vogtle, in Georgia, and there was one that went belly-up in South Carolina in 2017, taking ratepayers’ money with it.
That leaves the U.S. with 99 merchant reactors providing about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity and 60 percent of its emission-free power generation. (There is no nuclear power generation in arid Colorado, nor is there likely to be any again; cooling requires too much water.)
Goldstein and Qvist argue that the rest of the U.S. could move more quickly on new reactor construction if it followed the examples of Sweden and France, which would require a federal administration that wished to pursue it.
It would be done as a complement to renewable development, to eliminate coal-burning and decarbonize the domestic energy economy. Some experts believe that renewables currently cannot exceed 70 percent of energy supply.
As for cost – V.C. Summer, the South Carolina project, lost $9 billion – Goldstein and Qvist argue it could be brought way down, as South Korea has done.
As for safety, they say it would be less hazardous than continuing to burn coal, which is providing about 30 percent of U.S. electricity now.
There has always been this split in the U.S. and elsewhere, with most advocates of renewables, including some congressional Democrats who support a Green New Deal, wanting no part of nuclear power and some renegades favoring it as a bridge. The former feeling is derived from its association with weapons, the problems of radioactive waste disposal and from some notable accidents, such as Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.
We once met a woman who had lived not far from the Chernobyl reactor, in the Ukraine.
Like her neighbors, she was not told of the disaster, the worst in history, when it happened in the spring of 1986. Or in the summer. She did notice that all of the vegetables, which had been irradiated, came up huge that year, and they ate them thinking it was their good fortune. We met her several years later when she and her daughter were being treated in Cuba for thyroid cancer.
Goldstein and Qvist are asking us whether we would assume the arguably remote risk of another Chernobyl in order to move quickly to replace coal and reach a 100-percent non-emitting energy future on our way to a 100-percent renewable future.
To do that, we would need to have more informed faith in our government today than peasants had in the late days of the Soviet Union.
Lately, we are looking to government to do more for us than ever before, such as finally building national health insurance, a concept that has been advanced in the U.S. for at least 75 years. Perhaps it also could build reactors without killing us before our emissions do.