By Robert Margolis
With this first Global Power Shift convention, the Climate Movement has mastered the logistical, organizational, and political skills developed in the various local movements to bring together climate activists in an important global forum. Please accept my congratulations on this special occasion. It is also a time for reflection on how far the Climate Movement has come as well as the paths forward.
While I am not as young as many of the activists in attendance at this historic conference, I share a powerful vested interest in the future of our planet: I am the father of two children. Upon entering parenthood, the future ceased to be the realm of economic projections or futuristic speculation. It became the commonwealth to which are sent our most precious of ambassadors.
While there may be political or economic controversy surrounding the implications of climate change, the scientific evidence continues to mount and the need for better ways to use the Earth’s resources becomes ever more self-evident. New fossil fuel resources such as the methane hydrates add further urgency to the agenda of climate activists.
During my 26 years in nuclear energy, the challenge of maintaining the balance between providing societal needs and controlling the environmental impacts from such activities has been a constant obligation across the arc of my career. I offer these reflections in the hope that you may find them useful as you take the Climate Movement through its next evolutions.
Although I am an advocate for the use of nuclear energy, I do not claim it as the sole answer to the climate issue. I do claim that the Climate Movement must engage with the nuclear profession and reconsider nuclear energy as part of the portfolio to replace fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are commonplace as a result of their ease and versatility. The rapid replacement of fossil fuels requires an effort on the scale of the very Industrial Revolution that brought these fuels to their current global ubiquity.
For most of those in the Climate Movement, the idea of any increase in the use of nuclear energy raises familiar concerns of safety, proliferation, and spent fuel management. Many in the Climate Movement consider nuclear energy as nothing more than a controversial distraction that will dilute the moral power of the movement. However, a fresh look at nuclear energy with a renewed engagement with the nuclear profession will demonstrate that the Climate Movement is seriously looking at all options and has the courage to seek out new perspectives and alternate solution paths. Rather than a compromise, the Climate Movement will increase its integrity and further capture the moral imagination of the public.
As for the concerns regarding nuclear energy, I would offer that, as opponents of climate change action have exaggerated a small number of studies to skew the public perception of climate issues, so that many nuclear opponents have ignored the scientific consensus regarding the safety of nuclear energy and the ability of the nuclear profession to effectively manage the issues of spent fuel and proliferation—and instead have engaged in fear mongering.
Contrary to many who fear a fleet of large nuclear reactors and a “plutonium economy”, a variety of reactor technologies can be adapted to the needs of a low-carbon economy. Small water-cooled reactors have been safely used for decades by the US Navy; China is building medium-sized helium-cooled nuclear plants; and even the United Arab Emirates, which has an abundance of sunshine, is including nuclear energy in its generation mix, with four large reactors.
Nuclear energy has already been proven as a robust, safe, and adaptable energy technology, having been used under the oceans, in the frozen lands of Antarctica, and in outer space. Most of the post-carbon visions allowing human civilization to thrive within Earth’s ecosphere would benefit from the myriad of nuclear technologies available: There is no single required path for the nuclear option. You have both the right to engage the nuclear profession regarding the challenges it confronts, and the responsibility to re-examine the nuclear option in light of improved technology and regulatory enhancements.
Renewables have a profound allure. They are simple to operate, easy to understand, and appeal to longings for a simpler, more neighborhood-driven society. However, should the issues of energy storage and grid management preclude larger contributions of renewables, a path including nuclear energy offers the flexibility needed by the Climate Movement to achieve a safer, cleaner world. In the monumental task of turning the global economy away from fossil fuels, to reflexively ignore nuclear energy would cede the moral high ground to your opponents who attempt to claim that the Climate Movement is only concerned with extreme social change, with the environment as a shallow pretext. Embracing a reassessment of nuclear energy would demonstrate that the movement is fact-based and contains the integrity to lead our society to the low-carbon economy our planet desperately needs.
Whether at Global Climate Shift or in their respective communities, Climate Activists should seek out their local nuclear professionals and learn more about this useful, though highly controversial, energy source. In the United States, nuclear professionals may be reached through their local American Nuclear Society sections. Across the globe, the International Nuclear Societies Council contains the societies of nuclear professionals ready to engage with their respective citizens.
Let me wish you a successful Global Power Shift event and safe travels as you continue your historic activities.
Robert Margolis, PE is a nuclear engineer with over 26 years’ experience as a reactor engineer, startup test engineer, project engineer, and safety analyst. Robert and his wife Jennifer stay busy raising their two ambassadors to the future. The views expressed in this letter are solely those of Margolis and do not necessarily represent the American Nuclear Society or his employer.