I have just come back from China, and I have seen the future. It is ominously murky. Literally! The enormous strides being made, the torrent of new buildings and factories, the expansive new highways, the elegant and new boulevards, even the palatial majesty of such great historical treasures as the Forbidden City are all shrouded in a mist of polluted air foul enough to begin eroding real-estate values in Hong Kong. China's deteriorating environment is spilling over near and far, and is now a major contributor to intergrated Hong Kong's declining attractiveness to expatriate managers and professionals. So massive is the pollution that particles are reaching as far as California. We all know by now that air pollution isn't a localized affair. What isn't so well known is how pressing the danger, given the headlong leap into industrial development by nations that represent much of half the world's population (China, India, Korea, swaths of Southeast Asia, and Russia).
We are left with a Hobson's Choice, a choice that's no choice at all, but one that must be made. From what I have seen it is essential that it be made quickly before it has to be made hastily.
It is especially welcome to learn that others better placed and with wide experience share and are now broadcasting views reappraising the need for conversion to nuclear power. This is especially so in the case of an unlikely yet most influential and welcome convert to the cause of nuclear energy: Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace, the environmental watchdog group. Moore has not only written a strong defense of nuclear power plants, he has joined forces with Christie Whitman, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as the co-chair of a new industry-funded initiative, the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, to support increased the use of nuclear energy.
A few years ago, no one would have believed such a turnaround from a man who, as he now says, took it as gospel "that nuclear energy was synonymous with nuclear holocaust." And Moore still has colleagues who accuse him of selling out to the forces of darkness. But growing numbers of green leaders are joining him in switching sides, including James Lovelock, who conceived the Gaia theory of the Earth as a living organism, and Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog. Sometimes new converts pay a price: The late British Bishop Hugh Montefiore, founder of Friends of the Earth, was forced to resign from its board after he wrote a pro-nuclear article in a church newsletter.
Moore's reasoning, laid out in an op-ed piece in The Washington Post in April, is simple and persuasive: "Nuclear energy may just be the energy source that can save our planet from another possible disaster: catastrophic climate change." He says the 600-plus coal-fired power plants in the United States alone churn out 36 percent of the nation's emissions of the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide. That's nearly 2 billion tons, 10 percent of the world total, the equivalent of the exhaust from 300 million cars. While these plants are producing 60 percent of the nation's electricity, 103 nuclear plants are producing another 20 percent of our power without spewing the 700 million tons of carbon dioxide that coal-fired plants would have emitted. If the ratio of coal to nuclear power could be reversed, he argues, it "would go a long way toward cleaning the air."
Rebutting conventional perceptions, Moore argues that nuclear facilities aren't expensive, their initial investment notwithstanding, but among the least costly sources of power when calculated over the generating life of the power plant. Nor are they dangerous. He says Chernobyl was an "inherently bad design," and what alarmists failed to notice about Three Mile Island was that the containment shell did its job and no fatalities resulted. The problem of nuclear waste, he says, will be greatly reduced by new techniques for recycling spent fuel. And, while the danger is real that nuclear fuel can be diverted to make bombs, "just because nuclear technology can be put to evil purposes is not an argument to ban its use." In the past two decades, Moore points out, African machetes have killed far more people than died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He goes on to say that "If we banned everything that can be used to kill people, we would never have harnessed fire."
Of course, Moore tells his green friends, wind and solar power have their place. But because wind and the sun are not consistently reliable, they can never be primary sources of energy. Natural gas is a fossil fuel, and comparatively expensive, while hydroelectric power sources are already being exploited at near-capacity rates. Thus, in the end, "nuclear is, by elimination, the only viable substitute for coal. It's that simple."
Too bad The New York Times can't bring itself to add a stronger voice in favor of nuclear power. In a recent editorial entitled "Greening of Nuclear Power," the Times somewhat grudgingly endorsed the notion of giving nuclear power "a fresh look," but it seemed more intent on criticizing the Bush administration for signing a pact sharing nuclear power technology with India than on championing the environmental cause. As I noted in my April 10 blog, "America Helping India Meet Its Energy Needs," India's emissions of carbon dioxide could be reduced by 170 million tons a year. That's the equivalent of what an industrialized country such as the Netherlands emits in the same period. And if India succeeds in its plan to supply 25 percent of its galloping electricity needs with nuclear power by 2050, it would not only have an important impact on gas emissions but on fossil-fuel consumption. And we must also consider the benefits of having India's much touted technological brain trust working to develop clean and safe solutions to the problem of nuclear waste disposal.
China, of course, is not unaware of its pollution dilemma and its potential for catastrophe. It is intent on cutting emission pollution and has opted to harness nuclear energy to head off its crisis. China plans to build up to 40 new nuclear power plants by the year 2020. Six are under construction already. The United States hasn't built a nuclear power plant since the seventies. But now, with the likes of Mr. Moore on board, lets go!