We abandoned nuclear power. Now, Earth is paying the price

Nuclear power is low-carbon, and uses a fraction of the land as solar. Did we bet on the wrong horse?

Published May 20, 2023 1:59PM (EDT)

Nuclear power plant at sunset (Getty Images/Anton Petrus)
Nuclear power plant at sunset (Getty Images/Anton Petrus)

It's just after sunrise, and I'm leaning against the railings of Memorial Drive, which snakes along the Charles River Esplanade in Boston. Rowers move in tandem, back and forth, then gone: leaving behind glistening blue water, framed by old city grandeur rising from the banks above. Joggers pass by on the strip between promenade and road. Despite the activity, there's a striking stillness and serenity on that optimistic autumn morning. Though it's almost November, the scarf and gloves I'd packed before leaving London are redundant. A guilty thought crosses my mind: if this is climate change, then it ain't half bad.

In the 1950s, the US was on a path to a low-carbon energy future before the antinuclear movement, including the fossil fuel industry, successfully capitalized on Cold War fears of radiation.

Immediately my thoughts turn to melting ice caps, and the reality that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where we are headed to that morning, could be submerged under a 12-feet sea level rise within decades. Under that scenario, the streets of Boston's Back Bay we are gazing out across at would become capillaries of the Charles River. I banish the thought, not wanting to ruin the calmness of the moment. Besides, we are here to discuss solutions to prevent climate catastrophe — the biggest existential threat that humanity has ever faced.

It didn't have to go this way. In the 1950s, the US was on a path to a low-carbon energy future before the antinuclear movement, including the fossil fuel industry, successfully capitalized on Cold War fears of radiation: despite the evidence against harmful risks materialising. Later that same day, MIT's professor of nuclear science, Jacopo Buongiorno tells me, "If we'd stayed on that track" — meaning the track of nuclear energy — "the US now might have 1,000 nuclear plants instead of 100, and the rest of the world likely would have followed suit. We wouldn't be in this climate crisis if we had stayed on the path to vigorous deployment of nuclear energy. But we didn't. We abandoned nuclear and stayed with fossil fuels."

"Nothing happens by accident, it all happens by design," he says, pausing to smile before continuing to speak with faultless clarity and conviction. He's the planet's most prominent living architect and a masterful interviewee.

"The production of energy is the very essence of design. I mean, if you follow through the process that creates the electrical energy at the throw of a switch in this room, it's extraordinary. It's a continuous stream of products which are being mined, moved across vast distances, fed continuously into machines, being monitored, changing from one system to another. It's constant animation and it's a miracle in design."

His soft voice, betraying more than a hint of his Mancunian origins, delivers unrivalled insight as we grill him on all manner of topics, including his redesign of the German Bundestag and works of infrastructure in London, Marseille and Barcelona. Norman Foster has a special ability to hold his audience captivated, hanging on each word.

We are huddled around a couple of microphones in a window-less room, deep within the interior of MIT Media Lab, which neatly nestles into the modern urban-academic realm that is Cambridge Massachusetts. Sat on the other side of Foster to me is Buongiorno.

I'm there with my colleague Mark to conduct audio interviews for Gridlocked, a new docuseries podcast centered around the theme of why the 21st Century is broken, and how to fix it. The first season covers the energy crisis and aims to move debate forward by bringing together experts with solutions that go above and beyond politics. We have bold ambitions to take listeners on a journey to a place where any of us, whoever we are, can feel a sense of agency — that we can make meaningful contributions to solving the problems we face. 

And those problems are big. From Californian wildfires, Pakistani floods or hurricanes of increasing ferocity, we are witnessing ever more extreme weather events linked to climate change. Sea levels rise whilst inland reservoirs dry up. Across the world, climate adaption and mitigation measures are being ramped up. Against this backdrop and despite all of the public policy rhetoric, incredibly, CO2 emissions continue to rise. Despite every green initiative, in 2023 we are cramming yet more carbon into Earth's atmosphere, causing global temperature rises and melting ice caps and glaciers.

The 2016 Paris Climate Accords and subsequent COP agreements are the best climate deal we have. Yet, it will only reduce the rate at which we pump carbon into the atmosphere. We need to completely stop, and then get on to the business of actually capturing carbon from the atmosphere (a process requiring huge amounts of electricity, which must be generated carbon-free or else be a self-defeating exercise).

We are already witnessing the damage. The real concern is avoiding tipping points – those extreme events from which humanity couldn't recover, from sea level rises far in excess of current projections to a new ice age.

Currently, 82 percent of global energy is derived from CO2-emitting fossil fuels.

Later on, we sit down with the Media Lab's director, Dava Newman, whose impressive CV includes being appointed by President Obama to serve as deputy administrator of NASA. Newman speaks with vision, clarity and optimism about the challenges facing humanity. In tune with Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis, she makes points others often overlook, "I see Earth as Mother Nature, as a living, breathing companion. And I want to have a very compassionate and empathetic relationship with 'Spaceship Earth,' and all living beings."

We talk about the climate emergency being about saving the planet, when what we really mean is saving humanity. As Newman points out, "Earth doesn't need us. Earth is 4.5 billion years old and the experiment of life worked out pretty well, from the earliest life in the oceans to the land now, to humans… I'd say if we self-destruct and obliterate ourselves, guess what? Earth is still going to be here and replenish, regenerate and regrow. It's our choice, our future."

It seems staggering that coal has been the fastest growing energy source in the 21st Century, followed by (methane) gas. Even in these climate conscious times, burning coal remains the leading source of electricity generation in the world. Currently, 82 percent of global energy is derived from CO2-emitting fossil fuels, according to BP's Statistical Review of World Energy 2022. That needs to stop, and right away. We can use as many electric vehicles as we like, but if the electricity powering them comes from fossil fuels, then we are deluding ourselves to think that it is a clean endeavour.

Using the UN's 1.5°C temperature increase threshold as a yardstick, we will need to make radical progress by the end of this decade. As Newman explains, "the next seven years are critically important… the climate models are actually conservative. Things are happening much quicker than they even predict. I'd actually like to change the conversation and focus on 2030."

We already have the capability to produce vast amounts of cheap, carbon-free electricity. And we must produce vast amounts to meet the growing energy demands not only of industrialised nations, but of a rapidly developing global south. The idea that we can energy conserve our way out of climate change is nonsense; demand is increasing right across the planet. Not only is it unrealistic, it would be grossly unfair on the developing world to be told to halt progress because already industrialised countries have spent the past couple of centuries getting rich whilst using up all of the Earth's carbon allowance.

In other words, humanity's primary directive is to rapidly decarbonize electricity generation. To Buongiorno, Foster and other experts, the answer is obvious: nuclear energy. It has been obvious for decades. But public perception is not positive about nuclear power, and this is where the major challenge in rational discourse comes. This is where we hit the brick wall of misperception and misinformation.

Norman Foster points out that nobody seems to have considered what we do at the end of all those solar photovoltaic panels' 25-year lifespans.

"There is not going to be enough landfill to cope with the acreage that will be consumed by solar."

According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, based in Washington DC, a 1,000-megawatt nuclear facility takes up just over one square mile. By contrast, to produce the same amount of energy as nuclear, solar farms require up to 75 times the land area. Wind farms require up to 360 times as much land just to produce the same amount of electricity as a single nuclear plant.

Norman Foster points out that nobody seems to have considered what we do at the end of all those solar photovoltaic panels' 25-year lifespans. "At some point, (in) the consciousness, the reality of that has to kick in. There is not going to be enough landfill to cope with the acreage that will be consumed by solar." A solar future also means a future where landfills are full of millions of tons of cracked, warped, decaying panels.

Support for renewable energy is widespread because it makes us feel virtuous, that we have "done our part" to meet the climate emergency challenge facing our planet. But we need to be open-eyed about what renewables — whether hydro, wind or solar — can actually produce. Indeed, to acknowledge that renewables cannot deliver on any strategic scale alone. The sun does not shine around the clock, nor is there always strong enough wind to power turbines. The intermittent and unreliable nature of renewable energy production means that all forms of it require the backup of a reliable source of generation. All too often that means coal, or other fossil fuels, favoured over safer and cleaner nuclear. Without a rapid advancement in battery storage technology, which is not happening, renewables such as solar currently cannot use surplus energy in any volume to keep powering through non-productive periods.

Jacopo Buongiorno makes the point succinctly, "Renewables require some kind of backup. And if it's not nuclear, at the moment, it will be a fossil fuel." So that's a back-up choice of either clean nuclear or carbon-emitting fossil fuels. The frustration is that decades of anti-nuclear propaganda have led many to unquestioningly oppose the safest, most concentrated, efficient and carbon-free electricity source available to us.

Not long before the Boston trip I had a couple of meetings with Joshua Goldstein who, with Staffan Qvist, co-authored the book "A Bright Future: How Some Countries Have Solved Climate Change and the Rest Can Follow." When we recorded the Gridlocked interview with Goldstein, he had just returned home from the Venice Film Festival where he had been promoting his new film collaboration, "Nuclear Now," with director Oliver Stone.

Even existing nuclear power plants in the U.S., many of which are decades old, are incapable of a "Chernobyl-style" meltdown, according to experts.

Goldstein's journey from sceptic to nuclear advocate is one many of us can identify with, "I started learning about nuclear power and realized that a lot of what I knew about it from being an old hippie environmentalist from the 1970s wasn't true. And then I started to really like it and wonder why we had gotten so off track from using it."

We talked about how the couple of nuclear accidents etched into the public consciousness are not the cautionary tales the anti-nuclear lobby would want us to believe.  Opponents of nuclear know that most of us don't do our homework. They also understand that all the time you spend trying to disprove a negative, is time you're spending not winning the argument. To use Chernobyl or Fukushima as our reference point for nuclear safety is akin to talking about road vehicle safety using a 1950s Ford Motor car as our example. Just as today's cars now have seatbelts, airbags, anti-roll bars and anti-lock braking systems, so too has nuclear reactor technology moved on.

That's partly because modern reactors designs are incapable of melting down. And even existing nuclear power plants in the U.S., many of which are decades old, are incapable of a "Chernobyl-style" meltdown, according to experts — also due to different design than the old ones.

Indeed, even current nuclear power plants are, statistically, much safer than other forms of electricity generation. Using the latest statistics from Our World in Data, which employs the established measurement of overall death rates per unit (terawatt-hour) of energy created, nuclear is 820 times safer than coal. Moreoever, most people would be more surprised to learn that nuclear is also much safer than biomass and hydropower, and even safer than wind. It comes second (just barely) to solar: nuclear power has 0.03 deaths per terawatt-hour compared to solar's 0.02 deaths.

Nuclear waste – or rather, spent fuel – is, despite its reputation, relatively minuscule and handled more safely, securely and sustainably than any other form of energy production waste. Currently, nuclear waste harms nobody.

In their book, Goldstein and Qvist liken humanity's situation to being on a railroad bridge, 33 feet above water, with a train heading directly towards us. We need to jump from the bridge but it's scary to do so. If we freeze and do nothing, the train will plough into us. If we turn and run from the train believing that we are heading in the right direction, the train will still catch up and kill us. In this analogy, climate change is the train. Running away from the train but not getting off the railroad bridge in time is renewables. The option that will save us, the scary jump off the bridge, is to expand our use of nuclear energy.

We need to leap from that bridge, into a future where we can use any amount of clean energy the world requires. But we cannot run along the tracks anymore, because we don't have time to waste in combating climate change. We have the technology, knowledge and expertise. Now we just need the will to take the plunge, and splash forward with the same optimism as bright morning sunbeams lighting up Boston's skyscrapers.

By Nick O’Hara

Nick O’Hara is a dual Irish-British communications strategist, avid walker and aspiring new writer. He is co-founder of thought leadership consultancy Renovata, and producer of the new Gridlocked podcast, which seeks to explore why the 21st Century is broken and how to fix it.


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Carbon Emissions Climate Change Commentary Fossil Fuels Nuclear Energy Nuclear Power Science