Skip to main content

Al Gore Ignores Nuclear's Role in Restraining Emissions

NEI Nuclear Notes has visited this topic before, but it warrants looking at it again. The discussion on how best to reduce the growth of greenhouse gases (GHG) has dominated the environmental agenda in the first months of the 110th Congress. Wednesday, March 21, the first full day of Spring, promises to bring climate change to the forefront of the day's news.

Former Vice President Al Gore, who testifies Wednesday on Capitol Hill, focused on ways to mitigate climate change in “An Inconvenient Truth.” In the film, Gore discussed a 2004 study entitled “Princeton University’s Carbon Mitigation Initiative,” by professors Robert Socolow and Stephen Pacala. The analysis is based on the concept of stabilization “wedges,” or measures that could be used to limit and ultimately reduce GHG emissions.

These measures include efficient vehicles, an increase in nuclear power to displace coal-fired plants, greater efficiency at coal-fired power plants, an increase in wind and solar power to displace coal-fired plants and carbon sequestration. If all 15 wedges were achieved worldwide over the next 50 years, carbon dioxide emissions would be stabilized, according to the study.

Vice President Gore addresses most of these wedges in his documentary—except the essential role of nuclear energy—which he conveniently ignores despite its emphasis in the Princeton study.

Domestically, 103 commercial reactors generate nearly 75 percent of the electricity that comes from sources that do not emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Hydropower and renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and geothermal produce the balance.

Socolow and Pacala call for an additional 700 gigawatts (GW) of nuclear power worldwide over the next 50 years. In the United States, companies or consortia have announced their intention to file licenses for up to 32 new reactors to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Those who argue that increases in renewable sources of energy (wind, solar, biomass), energy efficiency and conservation are all that is needed to mitigate GHGs should note that:

  • The United States will require 45 percent more electricity—some 300,000 megawatts—of new electricity supply by 2030, according to the federal government’s Energy Information Administration. Moreover, the vast majority of new electric generation added to the grid over the past 15 years has been mid-sized or small power plants. The industry is entering a period where large power generating plants like advanced nuclear and coal stations must be built.
  • A wedge from nuclear entailing the building of 700 new 1,000 megawatt nuclear plants over the next 50 years is an achievable goal. The vast majority of the 435 reactors operating worldwide were built in the past 30 years, and new plant designs and state-of-the-art construction technologies that include modular building would allow this goal to be met over the next half-century.
  • A wedge from renewable electricity replacing coal-based power would require a 50-fold expansion of wind by 2054, a 100-fold increase in geothermal energy or a 700-fold expansion of photovoltaic.
  • A 50-fold expansion of wind requires building 2,000,000 wind turbines (each with a one-megawatt capacity). The land demands for this undertaking are considerable: A wedge of wind requires approximately 74 million acres—about the area of the state of Wyoming or Germany. An entire wedge of photovoltaic electricity production would require the area of New Jersey.
The Socolow-Pacala study makes it abundantly clear that it will take expansion of all energy sources that don’t emit greenhouse gases, plus energy efficiency and conservation, to mitigate greenhouse gases for future generations.

Moreover, studies or climate change policies from the Pew Center for Global Climate Change, Progressive Policy Institute, Earth Institute at Columbia University, an independent task force at the Council on Foreign Relations and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology point to an essential role for nuclear energy in meeting our future energy needs in a manner that protects the environment. There simply is no way to meet the fast-growing 24/7 electricity needs of our growing population and economy as well as our air quality goals without a robust nuclear energy program.

Former Vice President Gore testifies before Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on climate change today at 9:30 a.m. U.S. EDT. Testimony will be aired on C-Span. Though committee rules say that anyone who testifies is required to submit a written copy of their testimony 48 hours prior to appearing, the former Vice President has yet to submit his.

UPDATE: More thoughts from Pat Cleary at NAM and The Atomic Show.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Amy Ridenour is also asking for answers from Gore on nuclear energy.


Anonymous said…
I have been saying for a long time that we need to stop fooling ourselves. Al Gore is no friend of nuclear energy. He never mentions it, and when he does it is usually in some negative context, such as "we don't know what to do with the 'waste'", which we all know isn't true. Let's see it like it is and tell it like it is. If Gore ever regains national office he will not be on the side of nuclear.
don kosloff said…
Mr. Gore's position on nuclear power is clearly driven only by a desire to increase personal political power. That can be most easily seen by comparing his position on nuclear power in "Earth in the Balance" with his current position.

Of course, that is further reinforced by his approach to his personal carbon emission policy and those of his fellow elitists. The elitist claim credit for trees that sequester carbon. But those of us who have much small carbon footprints are forbidden to take credit of the vast US forests that sequester tons of carbon. The goal of the elitest is to balance the carbon budget on the backs of the poor and the middle class while they continue to expand their wasteful personal consumption.
Karen Street said…
I agree totally with the premise of this post, that nuclear power is crucial.

However, the Socolow-Pacala article said that 7 wedges are needed to stabilize carbon emissions by 2050. Stabilizing emissions is insufficient, as we want to stabilize atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases. More wedges are needed to reduce GHG emissions, and a portion of a wedge (or more) will be needed to compensate for the reduced ability of the Earth to absorb carbon, and in some areas, the release of carbon from the biosphere as temperatures warm.

Even though the article states that 700 GW of nuclear power would supply one wedge, presumably there is no reason not to have more than one wedge suppplied this way.
don kosloff said…
Good points Karen. We also have to build containments around a substantial fraction of cows and tighten up leakage on the increasingly larger natural gas infrastructure.
Anonymous said…

I'm sorry but I have to disagree with your comments. Nuclear Power is not a so-called clean option as you would like us all to believe.

The nuclear cycle uses large quantities of fossil fuels throughtout all of its stages. From the mining and the milling of uranium, the construction of the nuclear reactors and cooling towers, the robotic decommissioning of the intensely radioactive reactors at the end of its 40 year term of operation, and during the transportation and long term storage of massive quantities of radioactive waste. All of these require fossils fuels!

So if fossil fuels are used throughout every stage of producing nuclear power than you cannot claim that it is clean!

I highly recommend folks read the article Nuclear Power is the Problem, Not a Solution by Helen Caldicott So that you can have a more balanced conversation about nuclear power.
Anonymous said…
Helen Caldicott is a fraud who doesn't understand what she is talking about. It is true that carbon emissions are produced in the mining and processing of uranium, building of the plant etc, however when compared to the total energy output of the plant, this pales in comparison to the total clean energy output. Just the processing of uranium only takes about 5% of an energy deficit to make up for when fueling the reactor. Furthermore, if you believe that solar or wind are zero carbon emission sources, think again. For every 1 ton of silicon processed for solar panels 1.5 tons of carbon are produced, therefore each solar installation has a carbon "debt" to pay back before it can be "clean" energy. Wind turbines are made of steel, copper and other materials -- all of which must be mined, refined and transported using carbon emission processes. Furthermore, wind farms are a blight upon the landscape and kill rare birds of prey daily. The Altamont pass farm outside San Francisco alone kills 5000 birds every year.
Anonymous said…
All proposed sources of energy, not derived from oil, have advantages and disadvantages.
The greater the cost rise of oil, the lower the relative cost of other energy sources and the sooner the US will be energy independent.
That is the reasom for Congressman and scientist Roscoe Bartlett's optimism.

Fred Schloss

Popular posts from this blog

How Nanomaterials Can Make Nuclear Reactors Safer and More Efficient

The following is a guest post from Matt Wald, senior communications advisor at NEI. Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattLWald.

From the batteries in our cell phones to the clothes on our backs, "nanomaterials" that are designed molecule by molecule are working their way into our economy and our lives. Now there’s some promising work on new materials for nuclear reactors.

Reactors are a tough environment. The sub atomic particles that sustain the chain reaction, neutrons, are great for splitting additional uranium atoms, but not all of them hit a uranium atom; some of them end up in various metal components of the reactor. The metal is usually a crystalline structure, meaning it is as orderly as a ladder or a sheet of graph paper, but the neutrons rearrange the atoms, leaving some infinitesimal voids in the structure and some areas of extra density. The components literally grow, getting longer and thicker. The phenomenon is well understood and designers compensate for it with a …

Missing the Point about Pennsylvania’s Nuclear Plants

A group that includes oil and gas companies in Pennsylvania released a study on Monday that argues that twenty years ago, planners underestimated the value of nuclear plants in the electricity market. According to the group, that means the state should now let the plants close.


The question confronting the state now isn’t what the companies that owned the reactors at the time of de-regulation got or didn’t get. It’s not a question of whether they were profitable in the '80s, '90s and '00s. It’s about now. Business works by looking at the present and making projections about the future.

Is losing the nuclear plants what’s best for the state going forward?

Pennsylvania needs clean air. It needs jobs. And it needs protection against over-reliance on a single fuel source.

What the reactors need is recognition of all the value they provide. The electricity market is depressed, and if electricity is treated as a simple commodity, with no regard for its benefit to clean air o…

Why America Needs the MOX Facility

If Isaiah had been a nuclear engineer, he’d have loved this project. And the Trump Administration should too, despite the proposal to eliminate it in the FY 2018 budget.

The project is a massive factory near Aiken, S.C., that will take plutonium from the government’s arsenal and turn it into fuel for civilian power reactors. The plutonium, made by the United States during the Cold War in a competition with the Soviet Union, is now surplus, and the United States and the Russian Federation jointly agreed to reduce their stocks, to reduce the chance of its use in weapons. Over two thousand construction workers, technicians and engineers are at work to enable the transformation.

Carrying Isaiah’s “swords into plowshares” vision into the nuclear field did not originate with plutonium. In 1993, the United States and Russia began a 20-year program to take weapons-grade uranium out of the Russian inventory, dilute it to levels appropriate for civilian power plants, and then use it to produce…