Nuclear power: seems scary, but safe
By Charles Hallman
The environment can be saved through innovation, says award-winning futurist and author Ramez Naam. The Egyptian-born Naam who regularly lectures on energy, environment and innovation as an adjunct faculty member at Singularity University, wrote The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet that looks at climate change and how to invest in scientific and technological innovation to overcome challenges.
During his hour-long conversation with Minnesota Public Radio’s (MPR) Jonathan Foley, the author-professor proposed at MPR’s Top Coast Festival May 31 at Minnesota’s Coffman Union that the federal government offer “huge economic incentives” to large corporations to do more environment-friendly innovations.
“We are not creating any economic incentives for any [U.S.] company to actually capture any potential carbon dioxide that escapes,” he explained. “Cutting carbon emissions in half is not enough. We need to cut carbon emissions by a factor of four or five to stay under safe levels [two degrees Celsius] of climate change.”
Ideally carbon dioxide would be captured once it leaves the factory smokestack to keep it out of the atmosphere, explained Naam. “Then you condense it, and then pump it back down to the kind of places in the earth where carbon is stored for tens of millions of years, where all the natural gas comes from in the first place.”
Natural gas, “if it leaks into the atmosphere, has somewhere between 30 times and 50 times the warming impact as CO2,” stated Naam, who added that the U.S. Defense Department is “one of the biggest driving forces” in the “carbon neutral” fuel for their vehicles and aircraft. “The DOD [Department of Defense] is very much aware of climate change,” but otherwise, “We are not seriously investigating ‘clean coal,’” he said.
Naam opined that switching from fossil fuel “is key to our future” but noted that combined wind and solar power use in this country barely equals two percent. “Solar panels are where cell phones were in 1995. We need to get them where cell phones [were] in 2010, and to make solar panels the size of a cell phone. I think solar is going to have a bigger impact in the developing world,” said Naam.
Wind energy nonetheless is becoming cheaper as well: “Wind power in the U.S. in 1980 cost about 55 cents per hour. Coal, in comparison, costs about six cents. Now wind power costs about five cents per hour. In Minnesota where you get a lot of wind, it costs two and a half cents. It’s half the price of coal. A new wind turbine farm would be able to capture the emissions of four coal-burning power plants.”
He further explains that it’s cheaper today to run cell phones and computer laptops as well. “The price of the batteries and the energy source for them has dropped by a factor of 10 over the last 20 years,” he noted. “The manufacturers of [batteries] knew that laptop prices were dropping and they had to compete to make the prices go down, and to make the device last longer. More people in the world have mobile phones than electricity.
“It is a very sobering situation and a lot of challenges ahead… But I do see a lot of encouraging signs,” he said when asked about other energy sources. The author briefly mentioned other energy-generating ideas, including using plants as fuel and “chemical engineering technologies,” such as reversing the process on how fuel is burned, exist as well.
But he also said that although nuclear energy is “very, very scary…believe it or not, it is pretty safe.” He recalled that a tsunami in Japan once killed “10,000 people” but the nuclear power plant located in the same area thus far “has killed zero people… Whereas in most cities in the U.S. at least tens of thousands each year are killed from air pollution,” when considering the amount of people who die from illnesses associated with the environment.
“Every nuclear project in the United States is a mega-project,” he observed, adding that at one time there were five nuclear plants being proposed but now there is one: “The challenge with nuclear power is that it is not getting cheaper. If nuclear energy is to expand, it probably won’t expand in the U.S. but in China and India.”
Afterwards Naam told the MSR, “The cost of clean energy and solar has dropped by a factor of 10 or 20. We have a lot of environmental problems and we are making a lot of headway in technology… We are at a turning point.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.