Nuclear Power and the Urgent Threat of Climate Change

The Doomsday clock, the logo of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, showing two and a half minutes to midnight.

The Doomsday clock, the logo of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, showing two and a half minutes to midnight.

With the election of Donald Trump as president, the United States confronts a new era of climate change discussion. As I write this introduction, there are some indications that the new president and his administration will approach climate change as the hoax that he claimed it to be during his campaign, and other suggestions that he is more open-minded on the subject. I do not claim to have any idea how a Trump administration will address climate change, if it addresses the subject at all. But I know that this issue of the Bulletin – which focuses on the complicated question of whether nuclear power can be a significant part of world efforts to greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions – provides research and analysis that should be taken into account, before hard decisions on climate change and energy policy are made by the United States government, or any other.

In this issue, leading experts in nuclear energy and climate change provide their best judgments on whether and how nuclear power may or may not reasonably be used to substitute for fossil fuels in generating electricity around the world. As you will see, these top experts do not agree about key elements of the possible use of nuclear power to address climate change.

University of Chicago nuclear expert Bob Rosner writes that it is technically possible for the world to cut carbon dioxide emissions by replacing fossil fuel electrical generation with nuclear power, but the decision to undertake such a wide-ranging effort is ultimately a political one. Former Nuclear Regulatory Commission member Peter Bradford says the choice among nuclear power and other low-carbon energy sources should be left to power markets that likely will choose against nuclear in the long run. Sharon Squassoni, a nuclear expert with the Center for Strategic and International Security, sees the nuclear-climate landscape this way: “The likelihood that nuclear power will play a significant role in mitigating climate change is very low, absent a game-changing innovation that allows cheaper, safer nuclear power plants to come on-line much more quickly.” Stanford’s Michael M. May is somewhat more optimistic, saying that nuclear, hydro, and renewables are all needed to meet climate change goals, and the 10 largest emitters of greenhouse gasses “all plan to use nuclear power in some way to deal with the climate crisis.” Meanwhile, former Energy Department deputy secretary Daniel B. Poneman emphasizes that a new US commitment to international nuclear safety and security is needed, if nuclear power is to become a significant part of the world’s effort to drastically cut carbon dioxide emissions in coming decades.

As is the case with many policy issues, the Trump administration’s eventual position on expanding use of nuclear power in the United States is, at this early point, hazy. The president-elect and at least one energy advisor have made statements that suggest he supports nuclear power. I do not know whether or how those statements will factor into a future Trump energy policy that may or may not take climate change into account. But I do know the articles in this issue will be read around the world, by citizens and policy makers intent on confronting the undeniable and global threat of climate change. Campaign rhetoric notwithstanding, I suspect they will be read by some denizens of Washington DC, too.