The Relationship between Nuclear Power and Climate Change

Officials check for signs of radiation on children from the evacuation area near the Fukushima Daini nuclear plant in Koriyama on March 13.

In response to the recent incident at Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant, public opinion is turning harshly against nuclear power. Yesterday, more than 200,000 people protested nuclear power in Germany's largest cities. Berlin has decided to take seven of the country's nuclear reactors offline for safety checks, and is planning to phase out nuclear on a large scale in exchange for investments in renewable energy. Anti-nuclear protests have sprung up elsewhere as well, including of course in Japan.

The situation in Japan is undeniably dire. But Jeffrey Eckel, president and CEO of Hannon Armstrong—a company that finances infrastructure technology for sophisticated energy systems—argues that, without nuclear power, we will not be able to reduce carbon emissions enough to avoid the ruinous consequences of global warming. Eckel spoke to Joshua Pringle, senior editor for, about the tough choices we as a society face in providing energy for the world's ever-expanding population.

Joshua Pringle: Looking ahead, do you see this incident changing the trajectory of nuclear power in Japan?

Jeffrey Eckel: I think it definitely will. It has to. But the more important point is, that is a problem for all of us. If climate change counts and CO2 is a contributor—if you look at the profile of CO2 emissions getting up to 500 parts per million being the alleged tipping point—it's virtually impossible to get any meaningful reduction without nuclear power. The math is overwhelming. Coal is such a prolific producer of electricity for baseload, round-the-clock supply, the only other alternatives are natural gas—which is 60 percent of the carbon content of coal, a 40 percent reduction—and nuclear, which is 100 percent carbon free.

In isolation, I'm against nuclear power. Radiation is bad. We don't have a waste solution. But unfortunately it's not in isolation. It's part of a really complicated puzzle, and I simply don't know how you get there, in terms of meaningful carbon reductions, without nuclear.

So if this incident hasn't permanently contaminated water supplies and things like that, I think the challenge we as a society have is to accept a certain amount of risk in each of these technologies. Because we have risks either way. Either the risk is climate change, which is potentially catastrophic, or we have periodic nuclear issues where, if they waste a 50 square-mile piece of land, that may be an acceptable risk, given the consequences of not extending nuclear power.

JP: Weighing the human and environmental costs suffered from nuclear power when it has gone wrong, how do those costs measure up to those of other, "dirtier" forms of energy?

JE: Well, coal kills people every year, not just in mining but through air emissions. I think there's no question coal is more harmful to humans than nuclear. That doesn't make nuclear harmless, but climate change is going to have a much bigger impact, since 80 percent of the world's population lives within 80 miles of the coast. There's no question you'll lose more people from climate change. You'll lose more people just from increased hurricanes and weather events that may be related to climate change.

JP: What is your assessment of Japan's regulation and maintenance standards as they relate to this disaster? How much can be blamed on insufficient safety and upkeep?

JE: I have no idea about regulatory quality, but I would suspect Japan is at the high end of the spectrum of regulatory oversight. In the end, it sort of doesn't matter, because humans are involved and eventually it will end up in a screw-up. The question has to be, is that an acceptable level of risk for society?

Saying you don't want something isn't an option, because I don't want coal; I don't want nuclear; I don't want gas; I don't want all this stuff, and I sure as hell don't want it in my backyard. But, I do like electricity, and so now it's just a series of tough choices. And solar is great; wind is great; but if those ever get to be 5 percent of world supply I'll be astonished.

The problem in the Japanese reactor is that it was a 40-year-old technology. And the biggest problem was the diesel engines for pumping cooling water; the 110-year-old technology was too low to the ground. That's really what caused the problem. That reactor design has already been displaced by many generations of nuclear-reactor designs that are I'm sure much safer.

JP: You mentioned solar and wind. How much of the world's energy could we realistically expect to generate from solar and wind power, given the issues of transporting it and finding appropriate sites?

JE: Offshore wind would be the one area where I think there is great potential for large-scale and baseload renewable energy. With solar, I think we can do hundreds of times more solar than we're doing now, and it's still not really going to make a dent. I love solar. I have solar panels on my house. But it's not going to make a dent in carbon emissions.

JP: I know you're an advocate of geothermal energy as well. How does geothermal energy factor in to this conversation, in terms of both its potential and limitations?

JE: It has the best potential of all renewable resources in the sense that it's baseload, so it will offset coal at nighttime. That's the good news. The bad news is it's very location dependent. You have a lot in New Zealand, Chile, California and other areas in the so-called Ring of Fire.

There's a new technology called EGS (enhanced geothermal systems) that I don't think will ever take off. Basically what they do is cause minor little earthquakes, making explosions underground to create fractures that didn't exist, but the concern is—and I have no idea how to actually evaluate it—that it could actually trigger an earthquake. In California they've said, prove to us you won't trigger an earthquake—which of course, you can't prove a negative—so I don't see how EGS goes very far. And EGS has great potential, because you could do it everywhere, but I see that risk as being a really tough one to get over.

JP: On the global stage, which countries are at the forefront of prioritizing and incentivizing renewable energy and energy efficiency?

JE: Germany, by far. They've subsidized solar and wind. Actually, let me take that back. China. China is putting more money and more effort into renewable energy than any other country.

When you really study the potential for reducing carbon, energy efficiency is the primary solution. All the money we spend on solar, wind, oil and gas subsidies, coal subsidies, we should be using to subsidize energy efficiency. Or get rid of the subsidies and let the price of energy rise so that the economics of energy efficiency become even more compelling.

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