Take another look at nuclear

Recently Congressman Mike Thompson held a town hall meeting at Napa High on climate change. All speakers were compelling, but none as much at New Tech High School 10th-grader Kennedy Ervin. She captured the hearts of attendees with her eloquence and passion for a climate change solution.

The other speakers cited steps which move in a good direction. These included conservation easements, solar panels, eating less meat, and low-till farming. There’s no questioning the sincerity behind these actions. But I couldn’t help wondering if Ms. Ervin left the meeting unconvinced these solutions would sum up to solve the problem.

Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang told a debate audience of millions that “we are already 10 years too late” and “we should be moving people to higher ground.” I don’t agree with Yang that we are too late. But I’m glad he pressured the status quo.

California spent years expanding solar and wind power across the state. We have so much we pay other states to take our excess when we don’t need it. In the afternoon, our electricity demand builds drastically and outstrips what our renewables provide. We can’t spend tens of trillions of dollars on Tesla batteries to close the gap. (Yes, that’s what it would cost.)

Instead, we import massive amounts of “fracked” natural gas to burn in “peaker” plants. During the summer, California ramps one Hoover Dam’s worth of natural gas-powered electricity per hour from noon to 8 p.m. Since we need more natural gas than our pipeline capacity can deliver, we store it underground in places like Aliso Canyon. In 2015, Aliso Canyon sprung a massive leak, sending methane into the atmosphere for four months.

Methane traps about 30 times more heat in the atmosphere than CO2. As such, the Aliso Canyon leak negated the year’s greenhouse gas benefits from all of California’s wind and solar installations.

One impactful thing we each can do is follow the leads of climate scientist, James Hansen and Microsoft Founder Bill Gates who stared down irrational fears of nuclear power and are pressuring political leaders to expand it. Rapidly.

Nuclear power is a carbon-free source of electricity that can be ramped up to massive scale very quickly and provide power reliably around the clock, regardless of weather conditions, cheaper than coal.

Why isn’t the nuclear power industry expanding to meet the rising demand for clean electricity? Because most countries’ policies are shaped not by hard facts but by long-standing and widely shared phobias about radiation.

Nuclear power is the safest form of energy by far, especially compared with coal, which continues to cause a million premature deaths a year from air pollution in addition to contributing to climate change.

Over six decades, nuclear power has experienced only one fatal accident, Chernobyl in 1986, which directly caused about 60 deaths and is blamed for an estimated 4,000 more over the 33 years that followed. That’s a serious accident, but other nonnuclear industrial accidents have been worse. A hydroelectric dam failure in China in 1975 killed tens of thousands, and the 1984 Bhopal gas leak at a Union Carbide plant in India killed 4,000 initially and an estimated 15,000 more over time. Yet, we don’t stigmatize those entire industries as a result.

The 1979 accident at Three Mile Island killed no one. In Japan in 2011, the fourth largest earthquake in recorded history and a 50-foot tsunami together took almost 18,000 lives—and damaged the Fukushima nuclear facility, which leaked radiation. Exposure during the incident may have contributed to one worker’s 2016 death.

Nuclear power is regulated as though any amount of radiation is extremely dangerous. Yet we all walk around in a soup of background radiation, giving us an average of about 3 millisieverts (mSv) per year but ranging up to 200 in some places, with no demonstrated harm. Occupational and medical recommendations are to stay below 100mSv per year. At Fukushima, only 12 individuals at the plant received more than 200 mSv, and nobody outside the plant exceeded 50. Japanese medical authorities expect no measurable related disease increases in the region.

Nor is nuclear waste the insurmountable problem the public has been led to believe. The volumes are tiny, unlike the vast quantities of toxic waste from coal. All spent fuel from U.S. reactors over the past 60 years would fit on a football field, stacked 20 feet high.

All the reasons put forward to oppose nuclear power amount to over-hyped fears that in no way stack up to the real dangers facing humanity from climate change.

A great book on this is “A Bright Future,” by Goldstein and Qvist. I gave a copy to Congressman Thompson at the town hall meeting. Perhaps he’ll read it.

My congratulations to New Tech High’s Kennedy Ervin. You inspired us.

Matt Wilkinson


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