Damned if we do, and damned if we don’t?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.