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This item was posted on March 14, 2011, and it was categorized as Climate Change, Energy, Nuclear Power.
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Damned if we do, and damned if we don’t?

Severe damage caused by hydrogen explosions at two containment buildings housing nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear station in Japan is clearly visible in this high-resolution DigitalGlobe satellite image collected on March 14, 2011.


As I write this, a third explosion has occurred at the  stricken Fukushima Dai-ichi complex in Japan, and radiation levels are climbing to the highest levels recorded since the crisis began. Associated Press is reporting that authorities are working frantically to prevent a catastrophic release of radiation. And the story quotes a “top Japanese official” as saying that fuel rods in three reactors at the facility appear to be melting.

Meanwhile, in an interview with National Public Radio, Dale Klein, the former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and an associate director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas sketched out a scenario by which there could be a large release of radioactivity: If enough molten uranium and other material collected at the bottom of the reactor’s containment vessel, it could manage to burn through the thick steel.

If that should happen, nukes could be off the table for quite some time. But nuclear experts quoted by NPR say the odds of a total meltdown and breach of containment are low. So if the containment vessels really do what the name suggests — contain whatever molten mess of radioactive material accumulates inside — then we can eventually expect renewed calls for a nuclear renaissance.

Already, some in government are saying that the events in Japan should not put a long-term crimp in plans to expand nuclear energy. And Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel B. Poneman is saying the Obama administration is still committed to nukes. In an interview with NPR, he said, “We view nuclear energy as a very important component to the overall portfolio we’re trying to build for a clean energy future.”

Let’s hope and pray that the containment vessels at Fukushima do their job. Assuming that they do, and nuclear power is not so thoroughly discredited as to remove it from consideration, just how much of a contribution could it make — and SHOULD it make — toward reducing our carbon emissions? Nuclear proponents are sure to offer a very rosy assessment, while opponents will argue that it should be taken off the table.

To start to get your arms around these issues, it helps to get an accurate sense of the scale of the decarbonization challenge. These facts, from my colleague here at the University of Colorado, Roger Pielke, Jr., illustrate it well:

  • To reduce carbon emissions by the approximately 80% required to stabilize CO2 in the atmosphere at a target of 450 parts per million by 2050, the developed world would have to bring its “carbon intensity” (carbon emissions per unit of GDP) down to the level of Somalia and Haiti today.
  • Hitting that target would require “in round numbers, construction of one nuclear power plant per day (worth of carbon free energy) between now and 2050 — and that does not include the energy needed to provide energy to1.5 billion people who currently lack energy access.”
  • Here in the United States, hitting Obama’s target of a 17% reduction in carbon emissions by 2020 would require about 189 nuclear power plants worth of carbon-free energy.

(Roger addresses these and other issues in his recent book, “The Climate Fix.” So if you’re interested in what it will take to decarbonize the economy, check it out.)

It seems obvious to me that given the scale of the challenge in front of us, nuclear power is no panacea — and given the events in Japan, it is a perilous choice. On the other hand, I have a hard time imagining how we’re going to meet emissions reductions targets without it.

What a dilemma.

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This thing has 14 Comments

  1. Steve Bloom
    Posted March 14, 2011 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

    It’s become quite clear that planning for 450 ppm is planning for disaster, BTW.

    Also, there are better sources than RP Jr. on decarbonizing the economy, e.g. Mark Jacobson.

  2. Posted March 15, 2011 at 6:09 am | Permalink

    Hi Tom,

    I thought the target was 350 parts per million… http://www.350.org/ When did it get changed to 450?


  3. Steve Bloom
    Posted March 15, 2011 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    Joe, there was a prior ballpark estimate of 450 ppm, IIRC based on equilibrium ice sheet response. At Bill McKibben’s request, Jim Hansen did a calculation taking into account his recent work on increased short-termn climate sensitivity, and came up with 350 ppm as a *maximum* figure. Since that time ~2 years ago, 350 ppm has been steadily gaining acceptance in the scientific and environmental communities. RP Jr. and Sr. both have a history of public attacks on Hansen. More generally, non-climate scientists “policy experts” like RP Jr. tend to be quite resistant to 350 ppm since it recognizes that we’re already in a climate emergency, whereas they imagine that 450 ppm allows more room for policy options, if not for more delay. Among other things, 350 ppm requires shutting down all coal use within a matter of years and then figuring out the best way to draw things down as rapidly as possible since we’ll probably be at 450 ppm before coal use can be eliminated. All of this is of course a very, very, very inconvenient truth, but with multiple recent threads of evidence of carbon feedbacks initiating much sooner than had been anticipated (permafrost just the other day) it’s one that can’t be denied for much longer. Read Hansen’s latest (with Sato) if you haven’t already. Re decarbonization, I suspect this recent paper (Hansen co-auth) is more useful that RP Jr.’s book. Finally, here’s a related site to track.

  4. Posted March 15, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    It will be a Herculean effort to stabilize at 450 ppm — that is pretty clear. So stabilizing at 350 will be . . . What word can we use to describe it?

  5. Posted March 15, 2011 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Joe: forgot to answer your question. Sorry! International climate negotiations are still focused on 450 ppm. But at the end of the day, we obviously just have to start. At this point I don’t see the point in arguing over the number (which is why I’d be a lousy diplomat!). Either one requires action now.

    Oh, and by the, we should be paying closer attention to adaptation, because the odds are we’re going to blow well past 450 ppm.

  6. spyder
    Posted March 15, 2011 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    en français: impossible

  7. Steve Bloom
    Posted March 15, 2011 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    “International climate negotiations are still focused on 450 ppm.” Really? I didn’t think we were even that well off. Even if so, stating a goal is one thing, while being real about what it will take to achieve it is something else again.

  8. Roger Pielke Jr.
    Posted March 15, 2011 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    Steve Bloom, making stuff up about people is not very nice. In The Climate Fix I have a lengthy discussion about 450 ppm vs. 350 ppm, you should have a look, as it bears no resemblance to the fiction that you write here ;-)

  9. Steve Bloom
    Posted March 15, 2011 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    How little niceness? This little? Notwithstanding a career littered with that sort of thing, Roger, I’m sure you’ve right that you’ve redeemed yourself utterly with your new book, but I’m afraid I’ll be leaving it to others to judge the specifics.

  10. Roger Pielke Jr.
    Posted March 15, 2011 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

    Steve Bloom, perhaps we might agree that esteemed scientists such as Chris Field should not say things that are demonstrably wrong on the BBC. But whatever your views on that, it still doesn’t justify your making stuff up, does it?

  11. Steve Bloom
    Posted March 15, 2011 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

    I can only defer to you when it comes to making stuff up, Roger.

  12. Steve Bloom
    Posted March 15, 2011 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

    Looks like a thorough review:

    Book Review: The Climate Fix: What Scientists and Politicians Won’t Tell You About Global Warming

    What Roger Pielke won’t tell you about fixing global warming is far more than what he will

    January 2011

    Reviewed by Dave Levitan

    The Climate Fix: What Scientists and Politicians Won’t Tell You About Global Warming
    By Roger Pielke Jr.; Basic Books, 2010; 276 pp.; US $26.00; ISBN 978-0-4650-2052-2

    While many prominent climate scientists are spending their time advocating action and highlighting what we do know, Roger Pielke Jr. apparently wants everyone to take a giant step backward and restart the entire conversation. Despite its title, his new book, The Climate Fix, gives much more attention to climate failures than to climate fixes.

    Pielke, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has found himself at the center of science-blogger wars in the past, and though he doesn’t address those battles directly, his thesis remains the same. In short: Scientists need to stay out of politics.

    The politicization of a scientific debate is at the center of the book’s argument. What will surely rankle climate-change activists is that Pielke seems to focus on the foibles of the consensus scientists rather than on those of the lunatic fringe. Pages and pages are devoted to explaining why certain important papers and reports—from the iconic “stabilization wedges” paper to theIntergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s monumental undertakings—are suspect because of their political motivations. Very little space is devoted to explaining just how urgently action is needed. Significantly, Pielke agrees with the rest of his field on the need to stop emitting carbon dioxide and to stabilize its concentration in the atmosphere at somewhere between 350 and 500 parts per million; he just doesn’t want scientists to tell the rest of us how to get there.

    And so with all the “debunking” of prominent science, by the book’s end his readers won’t have learned very much at all. If you didn’t know that there were uncertainties in climate science before, then yes, you will definitely know that now. Pielke’s actual “fix,” on the other hand, comes so late in the book and is so poorly highlighted that it might not get noticed at all.

    What is that fix? Well, it involves an obscenely low price on carbon (US $5 per metric ton) that will pay for further innovations in renewable energy. Other than that, Pielke advocates setting specific goals, monitoring progress, and focusing on technology advancement. Yawn.

    If Pielke’s first tenet is the completely unrealistic and potentially counterproductive divorce of science from policy, his second, as evidenced by the meager carbon price, seems to be aiming low in the name of political expediency. He suggests five bucks only because it seems feasible and cites the support of Exxon Mobil’s CEO as evidence. Seriously, Exxon Mobil. “The precise amount of the tax itself—whether $5 per metric ton, or $10, or only $3—is less important than that the tax be implemented at the highest price politically possible,” Pielke writes.

    Such “pragmatism” amounts to bargaining ourselves down in advance of the bargaining that we have to do with others. Pielke’s carbon price will force fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil to do absolutely nothing differently. Pielke admits this, noting that the point is simply to raise money for renewable energy technology innovation. Such a path, though, ignores the vast scientific consensus that we need to start lowering emissions yesterday. Even if his carbon tax could raise $150 billion per year, as Pielke suggests, the pace of innovation can’t match the pace of current emissions and subsequent temperature and sea level rise, ocean acidification, and various other problems. At its root, Pielke’s climate fix is to do almost nothing.

    So as I expected, apparently Roger is less than on board with 350 ppm.

  13. Posted March 16, 2011 at 6:54 am | Permalink

    Steve: I didn’t write this post to trigger a debate over Roger Pielke, Jr. I spoke with him about this issue because I find him to be credible, authoritative, and provocative — qualities I like to think are infused in this blog overall.

    So you’ve made your point, and the RP debate is now over. It’s time to move on.

    But since this is my blog, I do get the last word on the question of Roger’s book, and his suitability as a source.

    Yes, there have been negative reviews of “The Climate Fix.” But there have also been positive ones. Here’s an excerpt from a review in The Economist:

    “The title of this bright and provocative book is knowingly ambiguous; what sort of fix is it about? At least three distinct fixes, it turns out. There is fix-as-dilemma, fix-as-stitch-up and fix-as-solution. Roger Pielke, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, has useful things to say on all three fixes, and in so doing largely fulfils his aim of providing a guide to the perplexed.”

    I won’t divert my own post to a subject other than the one I had originally intended by copying and pasting the entire review here. So if you’re interested to read more, please click on the link above and have a look. You might also read Roger’s book and draw your own conclusions.

    Lastly, just for the record: Roger Pielke, Jr., is a colleague and a friend of mine at the University of Colorado’s Environmental Studies Program. Sometimes I find what he has to say discomfiting. On occasion, I’ve found myself frustrated by his incisiveness. And at times, I am sure he is simply wrong. But as any reader of this blog knows, sometimes I am too. (Especially on such complex and contentious subjects as climate change and energy policy, who among us is not?)

    During the decade that I have known Roger, I have learned an enormous amount simply by listening to what he actually has to say.

  14. Posted March 16, 2011 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

    The first point is that all replacements don’t have to be nuclear, but to work, nuclear will have to play an important part. France went from zero to 80% of electrical generation by nuclear in 10-20 years (1970-1990) and yes, Eli is being lazy not going to look up all the figures. Forcing everything to nuclear makes the problem appear worse than it is

    If you want to think clearly about the replacement problem, go check how many large power stations are brought on line each year. One per day spread over the entire world over 25 years is practically BAU. In the US ~ 1.2% of all capacity is new each year and this is about 4% of coal capacity. Since current nuclear, hydro, wind and solar are already carbon free and contribute about 22% of generating capacity going carbon free is not out of reach in 25 years.

    The surprising thing to Eli was that right now gas is 41% of electrical generating capacity and coal only 31% and natural gas is a lot less carbon intensive than coal.

    This, of course, leaves out transportation and non electric building heating, but there are tremendous opportunities for efficiency there. Fleet mileage could easily be doubled in the US and substantially increased elsewhere

    Figures at


    Eli will resist the temptation to snark about sourcing.

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