Why Don’t Climate Change Alarmists Promote Nuclear Power?

In 2008 Al Gore said climate change threatens to “destroy the future of human civilization.” He continued, “We are facing a planetary emergency which, if not solved, would exceed anything we’ve ever experienced in the history of humankind.” To address the problem will “require us to end our dependence on carbon-based fuels.” Not everyone agrees with Mr. Gore’s conclusions on climate change, but for those who do, why are they not strong advocates of nuclear power? It is a proven technology in use today that emits no greenhouse gasses and can substitute for massive amounts of fossil fuels.

If we need to take action now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, there is no surer way to do it than to build nuclear power plants. According to the EPA, electricity generation and transportation account for 57 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Assuming that most transportation emissions are from motor vehicles, then generating all electricity from nuclear power (and other zero-emissions technologies like solar and wind) and replacing petroleum-fueled vehicles with electric vehicles could eliminate more than half of greenhouse gas emissions. Residential and commercial is another 12 percent, which could shift almost entirely to electricity, and industry accounts for another 22 percent, which also could be largely electrified.

By using existing technology to substitute nuclear power for fossil fuels in the generation of electricity, by substituting electricity for petroleum to fuel motor vehicles, and by shifting commercial and residential heating to electricity, emissions of greenhouse gasses could be reduced by 80 percent or more.

If climate change is a catastrophe on the horizon, and immediate action is needed, why are climate change alarmists not solidly backing nuclear power—a remedy that is available today?

I’m not siding with (or against) the climate change alarmists here. Maybe they are right. Maybe not. But they think they are right, and if they hold these strong convictions, their lack of active support for nuclear power is completely baffling. They perceive a problem. A proven and readily available remedy already exists, but they are not clamoring to implement it. They are not advocating the one change we could implement now to avoid what they see as the biggest planetary emergency to have ever faced humankind.

Admittedly, nuclear power has its own drawbacks, but they are small and manageable compared to the alternative of global catastrophe. France generates about 75 percent of its electricity through nuclear, and many countries generate 30 to 50 percent of their electricity through nuclear power, so the substitution of nuclear power for fossil fuels for electricity generation, and to power motor vehicles and heat homes and commercial spaces, is obviously feasible because it is being done now.

Meanwhile, Germany and Switzerland have started phasing out their nuclear power plants and will completely eliminate them. I’m not objecting to their decision, but the climate change alarmists should be. Those who view greenhouse gasses as a serious threat to human civilization should be outraged at nations that are eliminating zero-emissions sources of power.

Some economists advocate carbon taxes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. While carbon taxes would undoubtedly have an effect—look at the difference in the size of the average automobile in Europe, where taxes push the price of gasoline to more than double the US price, and in the United States—they won’t eliminate greenhouse gas emissions. Small cars still emit greenhouse gasses. A political problem with carbon taxes is that people resist being taxed, so carbon taxes will be a tough sell.

If governments around the world encouraged nuclear power, and perhaps even subsidized it, energy prices would fall, which people would like much more than rising energy prices, adding to the attractiveness of nuclear power. Electric cars are already cheaper to operate than petroleum-powered cars. What if governments offered reduced cost, or even free, charging stations for electric cars? I’m not suggesting governments should do this. I’m wondering why climate change alarmists aren’t advocating it.

Some climate change alarmists might not advocate nuclear power out of ignorance: They don’t realize the potential of nuclear energy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Some alarmists might be hypocrites: They don’t really believe their own arguments. Some alarmists are more anti-capitalist and support climate change hysteria because the remedies proposed would move in the direction of undermining capitalism.

Surely some climate change alarmists are both sincere and knowledgeable. So, why is there no visible support within that group for nuclear power?

Randall G. Holcombe is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, the DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University, and author of the Independent Institute book Liberty in Peril: Democracy and Power in American History.
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