Why do we need nuclear?

The truth about nuclear is quite simple. Only nuclear power can lift all humans out of poverty without cooking the planet, or keeping cities like Delhi and Beijing caked in deadly particulate matter. Coal and fossil fuels can lift people out of poverty but at a high environmental cost.

Solar and wind are too diffuse and not reliable enough to power factories and cities, and thus cannot lift people out of poverty nor reduce emissions from fossil fuel-powered electrical systems more than only modestly.

Hydro can lift people out of poverty and is low-carbon, but it’s limited — most rich world rivers are over-dammed.

Spraying sulfur particles into the atmosphere can temporarily cool the earth but not reduce humankind’s negative environmental impact or lift all people out of poverty.

By contrast, everything is in place to just build more nuclear plants. They are the safest way to make reliable electricity. They use the least amount of natural resources and produce the least amount of waste. And they are long-term investments that can last for 60, 80 and maybe 100 years.

Isn't clean energy on the rise?

Clean (low-carbon) energy as a percentage of electricity globally has been on the decline for the last 20 years — from 37 to 32 percent since the mid-1990s. This is not just because fossil energy is increasing faster than clean energy. It's also because nuclear power is on the decline in absolute terms. Why does all of this matter? Because slowing global warming requires going from today's 32 percent low-carbon power to 100 percent — as quickly as possible.

But isn't clean energy increasing in absolute terms?

Yes — but energy from fossil fuels is increasing faster. In order to decrease global green-house gas emissions, energy from clean sources needs to be increasing faster than the energy from fossil fuels and, in fact, replace them. It needs to grow in relative terms not just absolute terms.

Aren't you making a big deal of just a 4.5 percent decline? Isn't the trend flat?

A 4.5 percent decline of global electricity from clean energy is the equivalent to about 900 solar farms the size of one of the world's biggest (Topaz, in California) — or 60 power plants the size of Diablo Canyon. So, no, the trend is not flat.

Five percent of global electricity is 60 Diablo Canyon-sized nuclear plants... (Credit: John Lindsey)

Five percent of global electricity is 60 Diablo Canyon-sized nuclear plants... (Credit: John Lindsey)

But don't Germany and California show you can reduce emissions by deploying a lot of solar and wind?

No. When countries like Germany and states like California deploy large amounts of intermittent renewables like solar and wind, they must use a lot of natural gas or coal as back-up. California emissions have actually declined less over the last 15 years than the U.S. average, while German emissions actually rose slightly during the period of intensive solar and wind deployment, and it has recently cut back on subsidies for renewables. In both California and Germany, the premature closure of nuclear plants was another major reason for higher emissions.

Source: data from German Environment Agency (UBA) & Green Budget Germany

Source: data from German Environment Agency (UBA) & Green Budget Germany

Does the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) say nuclear is needed?

Yes, since 1990 the IPCC has stressed the need for an expansion of nuclear to deal with climate change. In its 2014 report, the IPCC concluded, "No single mitigation option in the energy supply sector will be sufficient,” the report warns. “Achieving deep cuts [in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions] will require more intensive use of low-GHG technologies such as renewable energy, nuclear energy, and CCS.”