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The Irrational Now and the Catastrophic Later: Nuclear Energy in a Time of Climate Change

Nathan Myhrvold, the former Microsoft technology office and current venture capitalist with a position on the board of nuclear energy startup Terrapower (whew!), makes the case:

Nuclear technology is scary to some people because they fear extremely improbable scenarios while ignoring the virtual certainty of climate issues. Ironically people who argue against nuclear on environmental grounds may contribute to a far greater environmental catastrophe. Unfortunately the physics of climate change makes the here and now danger too easy to ignore.

He goes on to explain that the worst impacts of climate change will happen over the course of the 21st century and beyond. He doesn’t say it, but that means many of us won’t be around to experience it and what Myhrvold implies – well, let’s let him say it:

This means that if we wait until temperature change becomes an obvious and immediate problem, we’ll only be half way through the warming caused by carbon dioxide that is already in the atmosphere. Even radical cutbacks at that point will not prevent another century of warming.

Obviously, Myhrvold is interested in nuclear energy as a means to combat climate change, but his implicative connection between what people irrationally fear now from nuclear energy and what they will not have to fear from the slow moving disaster of climate change is unique and has some explanatory power. I think Myhrvold underestimates concerns for the fate of humanity’s children and grandchildren, still, this strikes a chord.


Myhrvold’s piece is part of the New York Times’ Room for Debate series, which is currently exploring the letter from four top environmentalist requesting the increased use of nuclear energy to combat climate change. Naturally, being a debate – sort of - some of the writers take a dimmer view of nuclear energy than others, but none dismiss it out of hand. Here’s Harvard historian Naomi Oreskes, whose latest book looks witheringly upon the wedding in black of politics and industry with (some) scientists:

In their new book, Merchants of Doubt, historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway explain how a loose–knit group of high-level scientists, with extensive political connections, ran effective campaigns to mislead the public and deny well-established scientific knowledge over four decades.

The book discusses tobacco and DDT in this context and also climate change. Nothing startlingly new in the ongoing study into the human capacity for corruption, but sobering when all put between two covers. Anyway:

And that’s the point: nuclear power has never delivered on its promises. It hasn’t been the miracle technology that its advocates envisioned back in the 1950s, and it remains one of our most expensive sources of electricity. Citizen opposition explains very little of its high cost, most of which arose from difficulties inherent to the technology and its management.

The first bit (“miracle technology”) means that advocates in the 50s may have yoked the batter a bit, but domestic nuclear energy has certainly delivered on its promise – and expensive source of electricity is not one of them. Ask Japan – or Germany.

This is her proposal:

Several commentators, myself included, have argued for a new Manhattan Project on energy and the environment to develop options. This could include safer reactors, but also carbon capture and sequestration, improved efficiency and storage for renewable sources, better building design, and smart electricity grids, as well as regulatory and taxation structures that foster innovation and public acceptance.

Well, the Manhattan Project operated in secret and didn’t have competing goals. But this is Oreskes’ reason for the comparison:

The approach taken [in the Manhattan Project] was not to decide in advance which technological approach was most likely to succeed, but to try them all. It was an expensive strategy, but it worked. This is what we need to do now.

It is called Room for Debate, after all, and I certainly find Oreskes’ ideas debatable on multiple levels – and really tough to make work across many multiple disciplines. But not invalid perforce.


There are two other worthy participants. Mark Lynas, the environmental activist who featured very appealingly in Pandora’s Promise , thinks nuclear has to be part of the mix along with renewable energy, and Zhao Zhong from Pacific Environment goes for a carbon tax. All worth a look.


jimwg said…
Either the climate change people start honking their horns about the peril and the need for nuclear to stem it, or put up and shut up while being investigated for misuse of funds and grants as a $$$ red herring sham. Just why is the media alarm over global warming dying down the same time as nuclear plant progress in the US is slowing to a near dead standstill?

James Greenidge
Queens NY

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