Joshua Goldstein is a political scientist, nuclear advocate, and co-author of Bright Future, How Some Countries Have Solved Climate Change and the Rest Can Follow. We discuss why we should be thinking of nuclear as a clean alternative to coal, and how nuclear energy could be the technology for rapid decarbonization and a green future.
Nuclear energy offers large amounts of power, produces no carbon dioxide, uses a comparatively small amount of land, and runs around the clock. Although nuclear power produces hazardous waste, the amount of material and risk to civilians is small. The risk is hugely outweighed by the risk posed by climate change. According to Goldstein, nuclear power represents the best source of carbon-free energy available to us as we transition from fossil fuels. In the span of one decade, Sweden cut its emissions in half while also growing its economy, thanks to a large-scale nuclear program.
Nuclear Waste or Air Pollution?
Air pollution kills millions of people world-wide every year because of the particulate matter that coal-powered plants emit freely into the atmosphere. What people should be afraid of is coal, but what people are afraid of is nuclear power. The fear of radiation is exacerbated by disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima, as well as generational trauma about the potential use of nuclear weapons in the 1950s to the 1970s. Although large amounts of radiation are fatal, we actually live safely with small, naturally occurring amounts every day. The stigma against nuclear power caused Germany to shutter its plants in favor of solar and wind. They replaced one green fuel source with another instead of replacing coal with a green fuel. Unfortunately, because Germany’s renewables are not meeting demands for electricity, they are now burning more fossil fuels to fulfill that need.
Small Modular Reactors
Instead of giant nuclear plants, which can take decades to build, the future lies in small modular reactors. These new, pre-fabricated, transportable, and scalable reactors are in current development by the US and China. They are projected to be operational in the middle of the coming decade. These smaller reactors can be mass-produced and distributed to high-need areas. In addition, small modular reactors carry less stigma because of their size. The Chinese model can sit on a barge, be towed to a location, and immediately begin producing power.
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Joshua Goldstein is professor emeritus of international relations at American University and a research scholar at University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He researches, writes, and speaks about global trends including war and society, economic forces, and world energy trends and climate change. Goldstein co-authored A Bright Future, How Some Countries Have Solved Climate Change and the Rest Can Follow.
You can follow him on Twitter @GoldsteinJoshua.