Study asks: What would it take for a nuclear-powered world?
If renewable energy sources were characters from The Big Lebowski (stay with me here), solar would be The Dude — an insufferably chill ringleader whose reliability and good nature make him the obvious hero. Wind would be Donny — a well-intentioned naif just doing his thing in the face of non-stop criticism. And nuclear would be Walter, a fear-inducing loose cannon who puts everyone on edge but is ultimately the guy you’d want by your side when shit hits the fan.
And, folks, shit is hitting the fan. The world is burning, ice sheets are melting, and delusional narcissists are trying to take control of the country. So in a study published in the journal PLOS One, two researchers mapped out what exactly it would take for the world to go completely nuclear. Scientific American has the scoop:
“If we are serious about tackling emissions and climate change, no climate-neutral source should be ignored,” argues Staffan Qvist, a physicist at Uppsala University, who led the effort to develop this nuclear plan. “The mantra ‘nuclear can’t be done quickly enough to tackle climate change’ is one of the most pervasive in the debate today and mostly just taken as true, while the data prove the exact opposite.”
Qvist and his colleague Barry Brook, a professor of environmental sustainability at the University of Tasmania, studied the rapid adoption of nuclear energy in Sweden and France to make their projections. Sweden started researching nuclear power back in the ’60s as a way to reduce its need for foreign oil and protect its rivers from hydroelectric dams. Within 24 years, the country was generating half of its electricity from nuclear power. France, also wanting to rely less on foreign fuels, built 59 reactors in the ’70s and ’80s, and now, 80 percent of the country’s electricity comes from nuclear power, Scientific American reports.
Here’s what that means for the rest of the world:
Based on numbers pulled by the research team from the experience of Sweden and France and scaled up to the globe, a best-case scenario for conversion to 100 percent nuclear power could enable the world to stop burning fossil fuels and start fissioning uranium for electricity within 34 years. Requirements for this shift of course would include expanded uranium mining and processing, a build-out of the electric grid as well as a commitment to develop and build fast reactors—nuclear technology that operates with faster neutrons and therefore can handle radioactive waste, such as plutonium, for fuel as well as create its own future fuel. “No other carbon-neutral electricity source has been expanded anywhere near as fast as nuclear,” Qvist says.
But this doesn’t seem like a very likely scenario, given the current state of nuclear power around the world. Here in the U.S., nuclear power is on the decline because natural gas and wind power are so cheap, Scientific American reports, while nuclear power in Japan is still limping back to life after the Fukushima disaster. Germany, meanwhile, is phasing out nuclear power completely, and although China is actively growing its nuclear fleet, the country is still drowning in coal power.
“As long as people, nations put fear of nuclear accidents above fear of climate change, those trends are unlikely to change,” Brook adds. But “no renewable energy technology or energy efficiency approach has ever been implemented on a scale or pace required.”
And so here we are, at a crossroads, where we must ask ourselves: Is it time to deploy Walter? Sure, in a perfect world, The Dude would get the job done on his own without any drama, and we’d all live happily ever after. But The Dude’s running out of time, and while Walter has had some Fukushimas of his own, he won’t hesitate to beat the shit out of some nihilists if we ask him to. And should The Dude ultimately fall down on the job and get an ominous warning in the form of a severed toe, good ole’ Walter will always be there to pick up the pieces:
- The World Really Could Go Nuclear , Scientific American