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What is the best energy source in an era of global warming?

The Japan News

The Japan NewsA Bright Future

By Joshua S. Goldstein and Staffan A. Qvist

Public Affairs, 276pp

The hotter it gets, the more I use my air conditioner. The more everyone uses their air conditioners, the hotter the world gets, thanks to the CO2 from the coal, oil and natural gas burned to generate electricity.

And so it shall go, until the ice caps melt and Tokyo drowns. Sorry.

If only there were some way to indulge my love of my air conditioner, not to mention my computer, my television and my refrigerator, without all that apocalyptic gas. That would make for a bright future.

Which just happens to be the title — “A Bright Future” — of a book that presents a lucid reminder that the cleanest, safest and most reliable source of electricity is also carbon-free. Everyone should love it. It’s nuclear.

Coauthors Joshua Goldstein, a professor emeritus of international relations at American University, and Staffan Qvist, a Swedish engineer, have set themselves a daunting task. Nuclear power is hard to sell, because many people have “a gut-level fear of radiation.” However, they assert, “Radiation rarely kills anyone, but fear of radiation kills a lot of people.”

Consider the scariest nuclear disaster of recent years, the 2011 triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. Largely as a political result of that event, most of Japan’s nuclear reactors have sat idle for years, while the use of fossil fuels surged.

Citing a World Health Organization study, the authors say the death toll from Fukushima radiation was “approximately zero.” They assert that replacing nuclear power with fossil fuels such as coal — which they estimate “kills at least a million people every year worldwide, mostly through particulate emissions that give people cancer and other diseases” — was the deadliest aspect of the Fukushima disaster.

Coal kills more people, and is a graver global warming threat, but its mundanity makes it less scary than nuclear power.

Fear has led to the success of efforts — notably in Germany and parts of the United States as well as in Japan — to turn away from nuclear power. But that success comes with a price for the climate: “[In] every case where nuclear power was shut down, renewables have not filled the gap, and CO2 emissions have gone up.”

Since renewable energy sources like wind and solar are intermittent, they can only be used on a massive scale if there are also large-scale fossil fuel plants to even out the power fluctuations. Grid-scale batteries may someday remove that problem, but they can’t be relied on because, well, they haven’t been invented yet.

The authors point to places such as Ontario, Canada, that have seen conditions improve when they turned toward nuclear power. “In one decade, CO2 emissions from Ontario’s electric sector had fallen by almost 90 percent.” And they make a lengthy comparison between nuclear-powered Sweden and its coal-powered neighbor to the south: “Germany ... continues to spew twice the CO2 relative to economic activity as Sweden does.”

Economic activity is important to keep in mind: “Energy use per person in poorer countries is about one-tenth of that in richer ones, so there is a lot of potential for growth.”

People in poor countries also deserve to enjoy air conditioning, internet access and refrigerated food, and they’re not going to be any more willing to give all that up than I am. If we want those benefits without baking the planet, “A Bright Future” suggests nuclear power is the best option.

— By Tom Baker

Japan News Staff Writer

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