Why Are We Failing to Address Climate Change?

Electric power generation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. The warming that those gases cause is, as we all know, a major global concern; an impressive array of prominent people proclaim it the greatest challenge of our era. And yet, I have sat through many two- and three-hour symposia on solutions to climate change over the past 20 years – all of them attended by, and addressed by, those same people – where renewable energy is invoked repeatedly.

But a bigger source of zero-carbon-emitting electricity generation, nuclear energy, is not mentioned even once.

Why? The implied reason for this omission has been that nuclear power is too dangerous. But the number of deaths caused by nuclear power per kilowatt-hour has been less than for every other electricity generation technology, including wind and solar.

The failure to even mention nuclear energy is a mystery. What is the reason for this neglect of what would seem the world’s best hope for abating carbon emissions?

Why Nuclear Power Has Been a Flop an important but far too-little read book, tells the strange and sad – indeed, tragic – story. Written by Jack Devanney, an engineer with master’s and PhD degrees from MIT, it chronicles how nuclear power transmuted in the last 70 years from being the great hope for low-cost energy, to being too scary, then to too expensive. Extricating ourselves from this mess in the United States is going to be extraordinarily difficult. But fortunately – at least for the climate – other countries are doing it: China, Russia, and South Korea.

Devanney’s story can be summarized in symbols this way: Ban the Bomb => LNT => PRA => ALARA => $$$$; or in words, Ban the Bomb led to Linear No Threshold which led to Probabilistic Risk Analysis which led to As Low as Reasonably Achievable which led to Too Expensive.

Let me explain.