Opinion Four of the best-known scientists espousing the belief that humanity's carbon emissions are an immediate and deadly threat have issued a statement begging their fellow greens to support nuclear power.
Doctors James Hansen, Ken Caldeira, Kerry Emanuel and Tom Wigley co-signed an open letter over the weekend in which they address "those influencing environmental policy, but opposed to nuclear power". The four scientists write that "continued opposition to nuclear power threatens humanity's ability to avoid dangerous climate change ... there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power".
Hansen in particular is famous for having more or less personally come up with and promoted the idea of human-caused, carbon-driven global warming being a massive and urgent threat. His long career as a NASA scientist was punctuated by campaigning against carbon emissions, to the point where he was arrested for his behaviour at protests more than once.
Hansen and the other men's position isn't that uncommon. While there are large uncertainties over global warming - that is, how much of it there will be, how soon, what the consequences of that will be etc - the facts of energy generation and consumption are much plainer and simpler. Even under the most optimistic possible assessment, renewable power simply can't provide anything like the amount of energy required for any large proportion of the human race to live a reasonably comfortable life. Renewables are in any case ruinously expensive* - even the tiny amounts of renewable power produced by the UK, for instance, are already causing domestic energy bills to climb seriously. With many of the poorer nations of the world industrialising fast, the idea that demand for affordable energy can even be slowed down much - let alone cut massively - is looking more and more unrealistic.
By contrast with renewables, nuclear power is scalable, controllable and potentially well able to keep the lights on for centuries or millennia. It is also safe compared to all other methods of power generation (in its three "disasters" so far - Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima - the scientifically verified death tolls from all causes have been and will be zero, 56 and zero: a record which other power industries including renewables can only envy). Nuclear waste can easily be reprocessed and used again as fuel, rather than expensively stockpiled or buried**.
Sometimes people ask, what would charge up my electric car of the low-carbon future? What would furnish the energy for the electrically-powered cement and steel industries, assuming they can be made electric as cars and trains might be?
Or, if you're not an electric-future type, what would be used to produce all my clean hydrogen, or synthetic petrol or gas?
Nuclear, is the realistic answer. A nuclear-powered low carbon future is actually practical and feasible, unlike the idea of a renewables-powered one. It also has other attractions, not least among them that the world's wealthy nations would no longer need to pour hard currency into the hands of dubious governments overseas just to keep their lights on, homes heated and cars filled up. Instead they would make quite small payments (the fuel accounts for only a small part of the cost of producing nuclear energy) to friendly countries such as Canada and Australia.
The trouble is, as Hansen and his fellow green nuclear advocates have found, that many if not most people who care seriously about reducing carbon emissions also want just as seriously to abolish nuclear power, and don't care that these two objectives are contradictory.
A frustrated Hansen described this standard hard-green ideology as "a religion of sorts" to CNN over the weekend, acknowledging that he and his fellow pro-nuclear environmentalists have a hard road ahead of them.
Hansen and the other scientist-activists' letter can be read in full here. ®
*Apart from hydropower, which is excellent all round but unfortunately limited in scope for most areas/nations. It's not completely reliable, either, though much more so than wind, solar etc.
**Reprocessing is sometimes avoided as it usually - though not necessarily - involves creating weapons-grade materials. This might seem an odd position to take for a nation which also has a publicly-avowed nuclear weapons programme, like the USA, but it happens anyway.