Tomorrow the United Nations climate conference opens in Paris. According to Peter Thiel, the venture capitalist, “We can talk about a carbon-free world, or we can create one.” Continues Mr. Thiel, “The single most important action we can take is thawing a nuclear energy policy that keeps our technology frozen in time.” Consider:
Wind and solar together provide less than 2% of the world’s energy and they aren’t growing anywhere near fast enough to replace fossil fuels.
China’s coal consumption is growing at 2.6% per year and India’s at 5%. In India there are 300 million people without access to electricity. The Paris plan wants India to be satisfied with a .6 metric ton of oil equivalent per person, when a minimum of at least four tons per person is needed for the development of an advanced nation.
Safety fears about nuclear power are overblown. The 1979 accident at Three Mile Island caused no significant amount of radiation to be released. The 1986 Chernobyl disaster was caused by a faulty design and operator incompetence. Fewer than 50 people were killed by released radiation compared with 13,000 killed every year by smoke from coal-fired power plants. The 2011 Fukushima disaster resulted in no deaths from radiation.
A new generation of American nuclear scientists has produced designs for better reactors which have the potential to overcome the biggest obstacle to the success of nuclear power: high cost.
I hear many people say that the U.S. needs to provide leadership in getting the world to stop using fossil fuels. A carbon tax would provide an economic incentive to either move away from fossil fuels or clean them up. But even a revenue neutral carbon tax would face strong political resistance. Climate change activists should consider supporting nuclear energy development as perhaps the most viable alternative to fossil fuels.
The Los Angeles Times recently ran the article “U.S. electricity prices may be going up for good” (reprinted in today’s Omaha World Herald), stating that “Experts warn of a growing fragility as coal-fired plants are shut down, nuclear power is reduced and consumers switch to renewable energy.” The article goes on to say that “the problems confronting the electrical system are the result of a wide range of forces: new federal regulations on toxic emissions, rules on greenhouse gases, state mandates for renewable power, technical problems at nuclear power plants and unpredictable price trends for natural gas.”
“New emissions rules on mercury, acid gases and other toxics by the Environmental Protection Agency are expected to result in significant losses of the nation’s coal generated power, historically the largest and cheapest source of electricity. Already two dozen coal generating units are scheduled for decommissioning.”
“At the same time, 30 states have mandates for renewable energy that will require the use of more expensive wind and solar energy. Since these sources depend on the weather, they require backup generation – a hidden factor that can add significantly to the overall cost to consumers.”
Here is what we should do instead:
First, we agree that global warming is for real. For me, the clearest and most irrefutable evidence is the rapidly diminishing extent of the artic polar icecap each summer. There is much evidence that cause of global warming is the use of fossil fuels, coal, oil and gas, which releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Secondly, even though the problem is worldwide, and China emits more CO2 than the U.S., nevertheless the U.S. has a responsibility to provide the leadership of which only it is capable.
The problem is, as the LA Times article makes very clear, our disorganized and inefficient response to the problem. Separate and haphazard responses by individual states are not nearly enough, rather we need a coherent national response.
A national carbon tax of perhaps $20 per ton of CO2 emitted would provide a uniform market mechanism to encourage the reduction of carbon emissions from fossil fuels or their replacement by alternate sources of energy. Coal power plants, for example, would not be forced to shut down but would have to figure out how to emit less carbon in order to remain economically viable.
This would be a big improvement over our current situation!