Saturday, November 22, 2014

Nuclear Debate Redux

As I mentioned in Saturday's post, Hofstra University hosted a debate as to whether or not nuclear energy should be expanded to create a more sustainable future.  Many in the sustainability field argue that nuclear energy should be rapidly expanded to get us off of fossil fuels.  Others counter that nuclear energy is too dangerous and costly.

This week I wrote several posts on this issue.  Here is what has been written.  Today, I give my reaction.

Monday:  The distribution of nuclear power plants around the world and the amount of nuclear energy produced.

Tuesday:  The pros of nuclear energy expansion.

Wednesday:  The cons of nuclear energy expansion.


Thursday:  Introduction of the debaters.


Today:  Debate redux.  My reaction to the debate.


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If you were not there for the Pride and Purpose Debate, you missed a great experience.

The debate question was, "Should Nuclear Energy Be Expanded to Create a More Sustainable Future?"

You can watch the full debate here.

The debate was fascinating.  The two sides made very compelling points and I was surprised by how much my thoughts changed around the issue while watching the arguments.  I felt drawn to each side as the speakers made their points.  The teams had compelling arguments why nuclear energy either should be expanded or should not be expanded.

Paul Wilson, a spokesperson for the American Nuclear Society and a Professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison spoke eloquently about the need to move quickly off of carbon.  He stated quite clearly and effectively that nuclear is one of the most efficient and reliable sources of energy that could move us away from carbon-based fuels.

Arnie Gundersen, a former nuclear power plant advocate and whistleblower about the safety of nuclear facilities, spoke about the high costs of nuclear and the challenges of ramping up nuclear power to meet the needs for a low-carbon future.  He argued that our energy demands could be met with a very rapid ramp up of renewable energy sources like wind and solar.  I was impressed by his experience and his personal journey in the nuclear industry.

Mr. Gundersen's counterpart, Heide Hutner, the Director of Sustainability Studies at Stony Brook University spoke about the risks associated with nuclear and gave several strong arguments about the dangers of nuclear energy based on health, waste, and local disasters.  She added a human dimension to the issues of nuclear energy production that resonated in the audience.

J Bret Bennington spoke about the need to do something, whether advancing nuclear or renewable energy, to get us off of carbon-based fuels.  We have released millions of years of carbon accumulation in geologic reserves in just 300 years.  As he argued that we need to get off of carbon before it is too late.  As a paleontologist, he has seen evidence of extinctions in the geologic record associated with major changes in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Usually those changes occur over hundreds of thousands of years.  We are making these changes in a few hundred years.  This has never been seen in the history of our planet.

Each of the debaters did a great job in making their points.  Indeed, it was a refreshing experience to see opposite sides of an issue engage each other in potential compromises and solutions to a real-world problem.  While I do not think the debaters themselves were moved in any particular direction by the opposition, I do feel that the audience was impacted by the discourse.  Indeed, I had students talk to me after to tell me that they learned a great deal from the discussion and that their own position moved--some one way, some the other.

To me, the real winner of the debate was the issue of global climate change.  If you are a doubter on this issue, please see the discussion from Dr. Bennington on climate change between 33:48 and 42:27.  It's one of the best outlines of the issue I have ever seen from a geologic perspective.  Those of us trained in geology fully understand what is happening right now with our atmosphere and we have been ringing the clarion call for action for years.  Society has not listened.

So now, we are faced with a real dilemma.  Do we continue with things as they are and move toward a highly altered and unstable environment that will likely lead to significant social and economic upheaval or do we move very rapidly to a carbon-free future?

All of the debaters felt that we needed to move away from carbon.  There was, thankfully, no disagreement there.  However, the question is whether in our quest for a low carbon future we include nuclear energy in our portfolio.

Here's the reality.

By many estimates we have less than 50 years to get off of carbon before things start going very very bad with the geologic systems on our planet.  Right now, the rates of renewable energy installation and nuclear energy power plant construction are not going to get us to the point that we need to be at in order to prevent disaster.  We need to very quickly increase renewable or nuclear energy production--or both.

If not, we, or at least the next generation, will receive a big wake up call.

In Long Island, our sustainability plan seeks to double renewable energy by 2035.  Given that our current renewable energy production is 3%, this is very very modest and hardly a goal to get us to the point we need to be at to prevent problems--particularly since other areas of the world have goals of attaining 100% renewables or plans for significant reductions in carbon-based energy through a combination of nuclear and renewables.

What are our options for a low-carbon future?  What are the options in your community?  Renewables or nuclear?  Those are our only choices.

Hopefully, the debate and my posts on nuclear energy this week provided some frame of reference for future decisions as we try to address the global problem of climate change.

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