By Suzy Hobbs Baker
A few months ago, I wrote about the need to have an active dialogue between the nuclear community and the climate change community. Since then, the severity of the drought in the Midwest has continued to worsen and push up food prices, the Mississippi River has been intermittently closed due to low water levels, some private wells are running dry, and the arctic sea ice just hit a new record low.
The symptoms of climate change are all around us.
Since I last wrote on the subject I’ve gotten a great deal of feedback from the nuclear community explaining the lukewarm response to the changing climate, which has been extremely helpful and insightful.
What I’ve realized: Nuclear science and climate science are on the opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of their methodology. Nuclear deals with the very small, very controlled, predictable materials. On the other hand, climate science deals with innumerable factors, complicated models and a completely uncontrolled environment, namely the Earth’s entire atmosphere. In both scope and scale, these sciences are extremely different. Upon realizing these differences in methodology, the skepticism of many nuclear professionals began to make more sense to me.
Nonetheless, climate science has very important implications for nuclear science. Just this week, climate expert Peter Wadhams called for a nuclear energy “binge” to help solve the climate crisis. Nuclear is the only energy source we have that can replace baseload power without further exacerbating climate change. The problem with trying to apply the same level of precision to climate science as we do to nuclear science is that once the minute details of climate science are fully understood, it will be too late to act. We should take the best recommendations of the top experts on climate change and build policy and business plans, just as we hope that others will listen to the best recommendations about nuclear energy.
As the Shell company sets up shop in the Arctic to tap into previously unreachable gas and oil reserves under the thawing ice, I can’t help but wonder why the nuclear industry isn’t taking advantage of this potentially game-changing business opportunity.
I usually write about nuclear energy from a humanitarian perspective, and that remains my primary concern. However, after Sir Richard Branson recently came out in support of new nuclear technologies, I decided to pick up his book Screw Business as Usual to try to understand the renowned businessman’s motivation.
One of the main themes of Branson’s book is that “doing good is good for business.” So, in contrast to the ethically questionable business opportunity that Shell is pursuing in the Arctic, the nuclear industry has an opportunity to expand its business by helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, support sustainable growth, and create high paying jobs.
Nuclear energy also has a unique business advantage as America’s infrastructure ages, and developing nations seek solutions to building infrastructure that can stand up to a changing climate. The radiological components of nuclear require redundant safety systems and hearty containment structures, which work very much to our advantage in extreme weather. As our infrastructure is pitted against more and more extreme weather, nuclear is the only energy source that is already prepared to stand up to the changing circumstances. Current power plants have proven themselves in challenging conditions over the past two years, and new generation designs have even more passive safety built in. I anticipate that being able to offer infrastructure that can stand up to extreme weather is an important emerging issue, and an area where the nuclear industry has a considerable advantage.
So, despite the fact that my support of nuclear energy is based in humanitarian and environmental concerns, reading Branson’s book helped me understand the business opportunities that we are failing to capitalize on as an industry. Showing lukewarm concern for climate change is bad for the planet, and it’s bad for business. Denying climate change is the business equivalent of shooting ourselves in the foot. We need to act on this opportunity to do good, and to do good business.
Suzy Hobbs Baker is the executive director of PopAtomic Studios, a nonprofit organization that conducts educational outreach through the Nuclear Literacy Project. Baker is an ANS member and a frequent contributor to ANS Nuclear Cafe.