Is Nuclear Power Our Best Bet Against Climate Change?

bostonreview.net
7 min read
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Beyond carbon emissions and safety, the debate must also confront how the choices we make now constrain the kind of world we can build in the future.
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Wind turbines loom over the Tricastin Nuclear Power Plant in the south of France. Image: Jeanne Menjoulet



For half a century the debate around nuclear energy has produced more heat than light, inspiring impassioned discourse on all sides. But given the many urgent imperatives for rapidly transitioning our energy systems from high- to low-carbon—and from centralized and vulnerable to decentralized and resilient—in the very near future, an even-handed, impartial reckoning with nuclear power is perhaps more important than ever.

There is a serious argument to be made that nuclear should—even must—be an important component of our efforts at decarbonization.

High-profile accidents like Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Three Mile Island have helped to make both policymakers and the general public skittish about nuclear energy, despite the fact that the number of combined fatalities from nuclear energy is dwarfed by fatalities caused by fossil fuel-derived energy. Researchers have estimated that about 1 in 5 deaths globally can be attributed to fossil fuels through air pollution alone: that's about 8.7 million people each year. It would be impossible to calculate total historical deaths associated with fossil fuels, since fossilized carbon burned a century ago is still contributing to deaths today—often in indirect ways, including global warming and development—and the impact of carbon energy has undoubtedly caused extinctions of species that scientists never had time to describe. We can get a sense of the contrast between nuclear and fossil fatalities, however, by comparing their orders of magnitude. Though the total number of deaths associated with nuclear power is disputed, estimates vary from the low tens of thousands to the low hundreds of thousands. Deaths by fossil fuels, by contrast, probably reach into the tens or hundreds of millions, extrapolating backward on the basis of annual air pollution deaths alone—to say nothing of mining-related…
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