Trimming the Data on Nuclear
In the 13th century, a global climate change of only 1 degree caused massive famine and death from disruptions in agricultural, meteorological, and vectorborne-disease patterns. The infamous Black Plague or Black Death was one such effect.1 Yet today, climate scientists warn that even if nations take action soon, the very best society can do will be to limit climate change (CC) to about 2 degrees Celsius. As the previous chapter showed, even a 2-degree CC will bring increasingly severe hurricanes, droughts, floods, and vector-borne diseases, plus millions of climate refugees and hundreds of thousands of additional annual deaths.
To avoid as much climate-related death and destruction as possible, and to reduce greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions by curtailing use of fossil fuels, many people propose increasing atomic energy. In his 2010 State of the Union address, US President Barack Obama proposed increasing nuclear power and providing nearly $50 billion in new, taxpayer subsidies for atomic energy. Yet as this and subsequent chapters show, Obama and other nuclear proponents are making a big mistake. For one thing, chapter 1 revealed that scientists agree—there is no safe, non-zero dose of ionizing radiation. Chapter 1 also noted that the largest fission increase that industry says is possible would require tripling nuclear plants by the year 2050. This means the number of global commercial reactors could rise from about 450 to 1,000–1,500, supplying about 20 percent of year-2050 global electricity,2 compared to 14.8 percent now. Even with this unlikely nuclear tripling, fission would supply roughly 8–9 percent of total global energy, as compared to the current 2.1.3
Underlying the ethical question—whether it would be desirable to triple nuclear plants in order to reduce GHG emissions—are many scientific questions. One of the most prominent issues is whether this tripling is an effective way to avoid GHG emissions.