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Top climate scientists to environmentalists: Go nuclear

Posting in Energy

It's that time again when the United Nations convenes its annual conference on climate change and this year, unlike the recent gatherings in places like Copenhagen, Doha, Durban and Cancun, a strong pro-nuclear message is grabbing headlines.

Four top international climate scientists have published an open letter ahead of the Nov. 11-22 Warsaw confab, strongly encouraging environmentalists to back new forms of nuclear power as a low-carbon energy source that can help stave off the ravages of man-made global warming.

Many former anti-nuclear environmentalists have crossed over to the pro-nuclear camp; the letter makes an urgent appeal to those who have not.

"Continued opposition to nuclear power threatens humanity's ability to avoid dangerous climate change," it states, noting that:

"Renewables like wind and solar and biomass will certainly play roles in a future energy economy, but those energy sources cannot scale up fast enough to deliver cheap and reliable power at the scale the global economy requires. While it may be theoretically possible to stabilize the climate without nuclear power, in the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power."

The letter was signed by Columbia University adjunct professor James Hansen, who is the recently retired head of NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies and who's known as the "grandfather" of the fight against global warming; by senior scientist Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford University, who has been known for among other studies his assessments of high altitude wind power; by Kerry Emanuel, atmospheric scientist at MIT who has studied links between climate change and hurricanes - a notable specialty with Typhoon Haiyan raging through the Philippines as I write this; and by Tom Wigley, climate scientist at Australia's University of Adelaide.

It advocates "the development and deployment of safer nuclear energy systems" (emphasis mine) which offer multifaceted improvements over conventional reactors including a reduction in cost, waste and weapons proliferation risk, among others.

"We understand that today's nuclear plants are far from perfect," the scientists say. "Fortunately, passive safety systems and other advances can make new plants much safer. And modern nuclear technology can reduce proliferation risks and solve the waste disposal problem by burning current waste and using fuel more efficiently. Innovation and economies of scale can make new power plants even cheaper than existing plants."

Hansen prefers a design known as an integral fast reactor. Last year, along with entrepreneur Richard Branson, he wrote a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama encouraging its adoption. Other alternative designs include liquid fuel reactors known as molten salt reactors, pebble bed reactors and small modular reactors, each offering some combination of improvement in safety, waste, proliferation, cost and efficiency.

Many of them could be also be used as sources of heat for high temperature industrial process that today rely on CO2-instense fossil fuel. Some nuclear proponents say that replacing today's uranium fuel with thorium would also yield many benefits.

The open letter received significant media attention earlier this week as groups including CNN and the Washington Post via Associated Press picked up on it. Their stories mentioned little about the alternative nuclear technologies, most of which date back decades but which have lost political and business battles.

Photo from RAN Field Photography via Wikimedia

At CERN's recent thorium-fest:

A handful of SmartPlanet's recent stories on alternative nuclear:

Click here to mine a rich archive of nuclear alternatives such as thorium, molten salt, pebble beds, fast reactors, modular reactors, fusion and more.

— By on November 8, 2013, 4:23 AM PST

Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure