Response to Art Hobson's "Winning the Climate Race"

Dear Dr. Saperstein, Editor Physics & Society:

Art Hobson's commentary on "Winning the Climate Race" (Physics & Society, January 2008) reminded me of the predictions of some versions of string theory that an almost-infinite number of parallel universes may in some sense exist, because the commentary seems to be written for a parallel universe where uranium and plutonium do not fission and hydrogen isotopes do not fuse.  That is, there is not a single mention of the role nuclear power can and must play if the climate change problem is to be addressed -- a truly remarkable omission for a publication of the American Physical Society!

Even today, after decades of neglect, nuclear power provides 20% of America's electricity needs with carbon dioxide emissions savings equivalent to taking tens of millions of automobiles off the road.  France gets 80% of its electricity from nuclear power using decades-old technology, and does so as a result of decisions made for purely economic and energy security reasons, before climate change was even an issue.  Of course, a similar American contribution from nuclear power would require a much greater effort than required in France because of our much greater electricity needs, but resources available for this effort are correspondingly greater.  It is hardly credible to claim that, with today's more advanced nuclear technology, America cannot do what France was able to do decades ago.

Uranium supply limitations have been advanced as an argument against expanding nuclear power, but upon closer examination this limitation turns out to be largely illusory.  Known uranium reserves would support a substantial increase in nuclear power.  Furthermore, rock-bottom uranium prices until recent years meant there was little interest in prospecting for new uranium sources until the recent revival of interest in nuclear power, and it is virtually certain that large additional uranium reserves remain to be discovered. In addition, "recoverable reserves" are a very steep function of uranium price; for example, the Energy Information Administration estimates that known American reserves recoverable at a price of $30/lb are about 133,000 tons U3O8 but increase to 445,000 tons at $50/lb.  Since nuclear fuel is only a few percent of the cost of nuclear power, very much larger increases in uranium price would be required to substantially impact the economics of nuclear power.  Finally, in the long run, nuclear "breeder" reactors offer the potential to make nuclear power an essentially unlimited energy source.  Although large-scale application of breeder reactors on the year 2030 timescale considered by Hobson is neither necessary nor feasible, their potential does offer an invaluable hedge against the very real possibility that renewable energy sources never live up to the claims made for them by their enthusiastic advocates.

Nuclear waste disposal has, of course, been the favorite bugaboo of anti-nuclear forces.  However, numerous technical assessments, including those of the National Academy of Sciences, have concluded that the waste disposal problem is more political than technical, and "political will is a renewable resource," as Al Gore likes to say.  Furthermore, partial fuel reprocessing with recycle of the actinide fraction through fast-neutron-spectrum "burner" reactors, as proposed in President Bush's Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), offers reductions in the waste disposal problem by at least one to two orders of magnitude.  In the GNEP plan, weapons-usable plutonium is never separated from other actinides and it is destroyed in the burner reactors, which are collocated with the reprocessing facilities on sites subject to international inspection, greatly reducing any weapons proliferation risks.

Hobson asserts that developed nations ("rich countries") must cut emissions 90% by 2030 and advocates draconian and grossly unrealistic measures to achieve this; e.g., virtually eliminating or severely restricting everything from automobile travel to long-distance air travel.  Such recommendations far exceed what even the most ardent global-warming politicians are considering and could not possibly be imposed in a democracy. To some extent, the extreme recommendations are necessitated by his ignoring the potential contributions of nuclear power, but a more important reason is ideological: his assertion that the "fair pathway" towards emissions reductions demands equal per-capita emissions worldwide, which leads to his conclusion that the "rich" nations must reduce emissions by 90% to meet his overall goal of a 60% world-wide reduction by 2030.

The pages of Physics & Society may not be the best place to debate ideological "fairness" issues, but it should at least be acknowledged that it should be much more feasible for developing nations to develop using nonfossil energy sources than it is for the "rich" nations to discard and replace their vast fossil fuel infrastructure on a crash basis. This is especially true if the developing nations are given technological assistance from the developed world, something that would cost a tiny fraction of what Hobson's 90% reductions would cost.

It may conflict with certain ideological concepts of "fairness", but the fact is that concentrating on the developing world has to be the top priority if climate change is to be addressed.  China already equals the United States as the world's leading source of greenhouse gas emissions and its emissions are increasing far more rapidly; India and other developing nations are on similarly rapid growth curves in their emissions.  China alone is adding one or more coal-fired power plants every week and, once on line, each of those plants will emit millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year for the next forty years or so.  If the breakneck expansion of greenhouse gas emissions in the developing nations is not drastically altered, it does not matter greatly what the developed nations do.

As physicists we have no special expertise to contribute in ideological debates about "fairness," but we do have much expertise to contribute in advising the public and their political leaders on the scientific and technological issues of global warming and possible contributions to its mitigation.  Nuclear power has to be high on that list.  Few would claim that nuclear power can slay the global warming dragon all by itself, yet it is obvious nuclear does have a great potential to contribute to the solution. Neglecting that potential can only make an already very difficult problem far more intractable or even impossible.

David C. Williams
8252 Raintree Dr. NE
Albuquerque, NM 87122
Tel. (505)-797-9466

(Biographical Note: Until his retirement in 1997, Dr. David C. Williams was a Distinguished Member of the Technical Staff at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He worked extensively on a variety of nuclear power plant safety issues, with most of this work being funded by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.)