Nuclear Energy Insight
Summer 2011—Jesse Jenkins is director of energy and climate policy at the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental think tank based in California. Insight recently asked him about nuclear energy and environmental protection.
Q: Is it possible to be a pro-nuclear environmentalist?
Jenkins: Yes, I think it is, particularly in a world that’s concerned about the potentially unbounded risks of climate change. It’s definitely wholly consistent—at least for me—to be both strongly concerned about environmental issues and supportive of nuclear power as part of our energy system to transition away from fossil fuels that are driving climate change and other public health impacts.
Q: Do you see nuclear power as a technology that provides environmental benefits?
Jenkins: Yes. I think that if we were living in a world where we were rapidly shutting down coal plants and electrifying vehicles, where we could shut down oil refineries and oil wells and were doing all that with a set of technologies that didn’t carry any risk of radiation impacts, then I don’t think we would need to consider the role of nuclear power. But that’s very far from the world we live in … The expansion of nuclear power is consistent with a world in which fewer people die from air pollution, where there’s less environmental contamination and less risk of climate change.
Q: Do other environmentalists think you’re crazy?
Jenkins: I don’t believe they think we’re crazy … In some ways, it’s an unwillingness or failure to consider the full scope of the challenge we face when we talk about climate change. It’s all too easy to read the handful of, frankly, not credible reports that claim that we can meet all of the world’s energy needs with renewable energy and conservation alone. My assessment, as a professional energy analyst: There are no credible studies in which we can power global energy needs while reducing emissions to levels needed that don’t include a role for nuclear power—usually an expanded role for nuclear power.
Q: Used nuclear fuel management is an environmental issue. How do you explain this aspect of nuclear energy to your friends?
Jenkins: I always knew that nuclear energy was significantly more energy dense than coal or [natural] gas ... I had no idea how much more—we’re talking like five orders of magnitude. What that translates into is orders of magnitude of less waste, mining and fuel cycle impacts compared to coal, in particular, and also petroleum or gas.
[Used nuclear fuel] is certainly a problem and one we have to manage well, but it is manageable compared to the mother of all waste problems: climate change, a global phenomena that is for all intents and purposes irreversible and unmanageable.
—Read more articles in Nuclear Energy Insight and Insight Web Extra.