Climate change is perhaps the most challenging and daunting problem facing humanity. While the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report stating that the world needs to limit warming to just 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels to limit irreversible harm to the planet, recent analysis argues even that won't be enough. Sure, but haven't major world powers poured hundreds of billions of dollars into renewable technologies in recent years? And isn't humanity making real progress in slashing the rate of increases in carbon dioxide emissions?
Yes, but unfortunately, even the current rate of progress in renewables and "low-carbon" natural gas won't be enough to avoid or significantly delay the catastrophic consequences of climate change. That fact was recently echoed by James Hansen, the former Chief Climate Scientist at NASA, who called for a significant increase in investment in carbon-free nuclear power. Hansen even called for a global research and development alliance between the United States and China and for the rapid deployment of next-generation technologies, such as those from General Electric Company (NYSE:GE) and Hitachi. Could he be right?
Hansen recently laid out his reasoning in a study titled Assessing "Dangerous Climate Change": Required Reduction of Carbon Emissions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature. It's pretty simple. If we are to meet the globally agreed upon goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, then we must turn to nuclear power. Atomic energy may have an image problem, but it remains the safest source of electricity generation. You can complain about used nuclear fuels (waste) and the soaring costs of building nuclear power plants, including the two new reactors at Southern Company's (NYSE:SO) Plant Vogtle. But have you ever stopped to think about why those two problems exist?
A major contributing factor is a lack of investment in new technologies in recent years. First, consider that the monetary cost of nuclear power plants is heavily skewed to construction. That makes headlines about the inability of Southern Company to corral construction costs seem worrisome, but once built, the two new reactors will enjoy relatively stable uranium prices over the long term. We can't say the same for natural gas-fired power plants.
Second, consider that Southern Company is utilizing Generation III nuclear reactors for the plant addition. That's not to say the reactors aren't the latest and greatest of their kind, but when you realize that the first Generation III reactors built have been operating since 1996, you can catch a glimpse of the slow pace of research and development.
That brings us to our third point. While General Electric and Hitachi currently wield two of the 10 approved Generation III reactor designs globally, they are also marketing the world's first Generation IV reactor that runs on used nuclear fuels. In fact, it can reduce global waste stockpiles by 96%. If such game-changing technology exists, why aren't we using it on a massive scale (or at all)?
The innovation from General Electric and Hitachi is exactly the kind of technology the world needs to invest in if it wants to succeed in reaching climate goals. Countries could race each other to develop independent and competing solutions, but an alliance between the United States and China (and/or other major nuclear energy leaders) would greatly expedite commercialization. As Hansen summarized:
If we don't help China by cooperating in nuclear power technology development and deployment, they will do it themselves. That will be unfortunate, for two reasons. It will be slower and thus it will include a lot of coal use, such as building of many syngas plants. And it will make them the leaders in nuclear technology. Too bad, it should have been the U.S.
It's a powerful message and one that is difficult to disagree with.
Foolish bottom line
You may not support nuclear energy for fear of the consequences of a rare catastrophe, but many more people have died from health complications caused by burning coal and natural gas than have ever died from radiation exposure from a nuclear disaster. The only difference is that air pollutants from coal and natural gas aren't sensationalized by the media or pop culture because they're silent killers. Unfortunately, they'll become much louder this century by compounding the dangerous effects of climate change. If the world doesn't come together to invest in next-generation nuclear technologies from companies such as General Electric, then it's likely impossible for the world to reach its climate goals.
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Fool contributor Maxx Chatsko has no position in any stocks mentioned. Check out his personal portfolio, his CAPS page, his previous writing for The Motley Fool, or his work for the SynBioBeta Blog to keep up with developments in the synthetic biology industry.
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