The Importance of Nuclear Energy in Reducing Carbon Emissions

By Richard Whiteford

Former Indiana Senator Evan Bayh, now co-chair of Nuclear Matters, an organization promoting nuclear power as the answer to a carbon free energy source, spoke at Wharton University’s Huntsman Hall for the Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership (IGEL) on February 3, 2016.

The most important point he made, in my opinion, is that in order to cut carbon emissions enough to keep the planetary temperature from rising another 1.5° C we must keep our existing nuclear power plants maintained and running and we need to build more to further reduce our carbon emissions. For instance, Mr. Bayh pointed out, just Pennsylvania’s nuclear power plants alone, reduce our carbon output by 52 million tons per year. If those plants close it would increase our carbon emission levels by that much at a time when the federal government’s Clean Power Plan mandates us to reduce our emissions.

Case in point, at the COP-21 Climate Summit in Paris in 2015, scientists said the carbon content in the atmosphere since around 1750 has risen from 280 parts per million to today’s 400 parts per million. At present we pump 110 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every day from burning coal, oil and natural gas. This has caused the average global temperature to increase by 1.2°C or 2.16° F. That doesn’t sound like much if you think about a daily temperature change, but this is the average planetary temperature – a very different thing.

It has caused the past decade to be the hottest on record and July 2015 was the hottest month ever recorded. If you pay attention to the extreme weather events like historic floods, droughts, storms, and glacier melts that are happening and consider that if a 1.2° C temperature rise did this, what will a 2° C or a 4° C temperature rise do to the planet?  According to Secretary of State John Kerry, “since 2013 America has been forced to spend $160 billion on extreme weather events.”

According to climatologists, if we don’t drastically cut CO2 emission right now, we will contribute enough CO2 to the atmosphere to hit that 2° C temperature in just three years and if we keep burning fossil fuels at the current rate, we will pass the extremely dangerous threshold within 20 years. The critical issue is that we can only afford to burn around 800 billion more tons of carbon and expect to stay within the 1.5° C limit but we have 2,795 tons of carbon in inventory to burn. If we burn that it will raise the planetary average temperature to around 6° C or 10.8° Fahrenheit which would be disastrous for life as we know it on this planet. Nuclear energy will have to be a sizable part of the energy mix along with solar, wind, geothermal, and hydro to meet our future energy needs without fossil fuels.  We have to leave carbon in the ground.

Richard Whiteford
Board Member
World Information Transfer
an NGO at the United Nations.

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