We can't ignore the potential of nuclear power

Editor of the Reformer:

Can the United States afford to remain idle as Asian countries with fast-growing economies fail to reduce global warming emissions?

President Obama addressed that question during a recent White House panel on climate change, during which the importance of the Paris agreement on carbon reduction came up. Some people right here in New England might be surprised by his response: "If we're going to get China or India to actually sign on to reducing carbon emissions, then we're going to have to have a conversation with them about nuclear power."

Obama said Asian countries that need to increase energy production in order to satisfy the aspirations of billions of people for higher living standards will face enormous difficulties in reducing carbon emissions without the expanded use of nuclear power. But for nuclear power, which is carbon-free, to work as intended, he said, the United States will need to "help them with technologies that ensure safety."

"America has got to lead the way," he said, "because not only do we have the highest carbon footprint, per capita, but also because we happen to be the most innovative, dynamic business and entrepreneurial sector in the world."


Clearly, the United States has a special responsibility to share emission-free technologies with Asia because over the past century we have relied heavily on carbon-rich coal for our own electricity production and economic development. In fact, the United States still obtains 25 percent of its power from coal and has the highest per capita carbon emissions in the world. China, on the other hand, is the world's biggest overall coal user, producing 30 percent of the world's carbon emissions. More to the point, China accounts for 76 percent of the projected net increase in world coal use in the years ahead. Other Asian countries that burn large amounts of coal and load the atmosphere with carbon include India, Indonesia, Pakistan, South Korea, and Japan.

Take Japan, which has the world's third largest economy. Following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident, Japan made up for its lost nuclear-generating capacity largely by restarting old coal plants and constructing new coal facilities. As a result, its carbon emissions have soared by between 100 and 200 million tons per year. And, unfortunately, that's likely to continue unless Japan restarts its nuclear plants, many of which are still shut down. Last year was the hottest year on record. This potential relationship between the loss of so much nuclear power and higher temperature cannot be ignored.

Nuclear power is environmentally friendly. Unlike fossil-fuel plants, nuclear reactors do not emit carbon or other greenhouse gases that trap heat and warm the Earth. Nor do nuclear plants release sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxides, which produce acid rain and smog. China and India are switching from coal to nuclear power in some heavily-populated regions to reduce serious health hazards from air pollution.

The current challenge is to get these countries, China in particular, to build a new generation of nuclear plants using advanced technology. Critical to these efforts are several American start-up companies that are shaping the development of innovative technologies for molten salt, pebble bed, traveling wave reactors and small modular reactors. The question is whether these and other promising nuclear technologies can be brought to the commercial market successfully.

The future is really in America's hands, because in terms of serious action, we are the ones in the driver's seat of climate technology. It is an opportunity we cannot afford to lose. The longer it takes to bring about results in Asia the greater the repercussions.

Bob Leach, Brattleboro, Oct. 16