For a source of electricity that contributes to about 3 percent of global energy consumption, we are having an awfully big debate. Charles D. Ferguson ("Think Again: Nuclear Power," November 2011) and company seem to miss this point when they trot out a litany of lame claims about how nuclear energy is a climate-friendly panacea for energy security.
Even before the Fukushima meltdown, industry plans to double nuclear power capacity were in the realm of fantasy. Doubling current capacity would require a multibillion-dollar nuclear plant to come on stream every week for two decades. That's a far cry from the few reactors that become operational worldwide each year. Such a construction boom would only cut global carbon dioxide emissions by 3 to 4 percent.
Building a nuclear power plant currently takes more than a decade from inception to completion, rendering such plants irrelevant in stopping CO2 emission growth during this decade, a prerequisite for keeping global warming below catastrophic levels.
Contrast that with two or three years for a wind farm or less than a year for solar panels. Wind power already provides more affordable power than nuclear power plants, and the costs for solar panels are coming down faster than anyone could predict.
In the long term, measured in the half-lives of radioactive decay, nuclear power would produce radioactive waste that would threaten countless generations. Arguments for functioning radioactive-waste disposal sites are dangerously spurious, and the notion that any experience can be extrapolated over hundreds of thousands of years is a potentially deadly delusion.
Ferguson's dewy-eyed "jam tomorrow" promotion of nuclear power sounds like the bold promises of the 1950s nuclear barons and reminds me of the promise that electricity would become "too cheap to meter." As the bill for Fukushima continues to rise, we know that is simply not true.
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Charles D. Ferguson replies:
As an admirer of Kumi Naidoo's vision for transitioning the world from burning fossil fuels, I was perplexed to read the misinformed claims made in his letter about my purported "dewy-eyed 'jam tomorrow' promotion of nuclear power." On the contrary, my article clearly concludes that nuclear power "since its inception has been haunted by its early boosters' starry-eyed projections of incredibly cheap and abundant energy." I did not imply at all that nuclear power would become "too cheap to meter." As my article underscored and as Naidoo would agree, large nuclear plants have huge construction costs, and "nuclear power has never succeeded anywhere without enormous government backing."
I think the real difference of opinion is that I still foresee a significant role for nuclear power in the coming decades, while Naidoo wants to eliminate its use. Although nuclear power provides only 14 percent of the globe's electricity, several countries generate more than one-third of their electricity from this power source. The fact remains that China and India -- the two largest developing countries -- are committed to boosting their use of nuclear power as well as coal. Although Naidoo makes a fair point that wind power is becoming economically competitive and solar power's prices are dropping, these sources are intermittent. Thus, until reliable, large, and inexpensive energy storage systems are available, these renewable energies will need backup power sources such as coal, natural gas, oil, and, yes, nuclear power to ensure that electricity is there when people need it.