The Most Important Investment that We Aren't Making to Mitigate the Climate Crisis

12/26/2009 05:12 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Our country is making a huge mistake in the way we are dealing with global warming. Instead of following the old adage, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," we are doing the opposite: committing massive dollars for mitigation strategies while at the same time refusing to build the most promising new clean base-load power generation technologies developed by our nation's top energy scientists.

The International Energy Agency tells us that every year of delay in action to tackle global warming costs $500 billion.

So what are doing about it?

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the U.S. would join others in securing a $100 billion annual fund by 2020 to help developing countries cope with climate change.

Pouring money into token mitigation strategies is a non-sustainable way to deal with climate change. That number will keep rising and rising every year without bound.

The most effective way to deal with climate change is to seriously reduce our carbon emissions. We'll never get the enormous emission reductions we need by treaty alone. Been there, done that. It's not going to happen because nobody can economically justify the reductions.

But what would happen if we changed the math? What if the carbon free energy sources were cheaper than the alternatives? Then people would be rushing to switch.

If you want to get emissions reductions, you must make the alternatives for base-load electric power generation cheaper than coal. It's that simple. If you don't do that, you lose.

We don't have to look very far to find the best area to invest in. Nuclear is the elephant of clean power technologies. It's also very efficient in terms of the natural resources that are required to construct these power plants (less than a tenth of what it takes for the same amount of energy from renewables).

But this isn't necessarily about nuclear. Perhaps there are other areas that I don't know about that are also viable. The main point is this: We need to be investing billions of dollars right now in perfecting and cost reducing any technology that we know about today that has the potential to generate reliable base-load electric power at any site in the world at a cost less than a coal plant.

In the opinion of the energy experts I know, the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) would be on anyone's "short list" of technologies that for sure we'd want to invest in now for the long term. The Gen IV International Forum (an independent international group of nuclear experts) did an extensive study of all nuclear designs and rated the IFR the best nuclear design overall. GE-Hitachi has all the plans completed is ready to build the needed commercial-scale demonstration. Unlike conventional nuclear, IFRs can replace the burner in a coal plant, making it very cost effective to switch to the lower cost, clean alternative. The fuel to run these plants for thousands of years has already been mined and is just sitting there collecting dust. We solve our nuclear waste problem at the same time. What could be better than that?

The fact that we aren't investing even a nickel to prove the IFR (or even the LFTR) is the "canary in the coal mine." It's telling me that our current strategy is defective.

It makes no sense to commit $100 billion every year to mitigate the effects of climate change while at the same time refuse to invest even a nickel in one of the most promising technologies (developed at our own national labs by our nation's smartest energy experts) that could prevent the problem from getting any worse.

The billions we invest in R&D now in building a clean and cheaper alternative to coal power will pay off in spades later.We have a really great option now -- the IFR is on the verge of commercial readiness -- and potential competitors such as the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) are in the wings. But the US government isn't investing in developing any of these breakthrough new base-load power generation technologies. Not a single one.

We are investing in third-generation nuclear which is a good short-term strategy.

But completely ignoring fourth generation nuclear (such as the IFR), is a very bad idea. Fourth generation reactors are over 100 times more efficient than existing reactors, they generate little waste, consume existing nuclear waste for fuel, and can help bring the spread of nuclear weapons under control.

We cannot be leaders in clean power by leaving our best technology on the shelf.

We need to move the world off of coal as soon as possible. Copenhagen has proven yet again that agreements to reduce emission won't work. Therefore, an economic solution is the only option left. The best way to develop a cheaper alternative to coal is to place a few big strategic bets now on our best technologies that can do that. We have no time to waste.