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Is Nuclear Power The Best Option To Slow Climate Change?

January 9, 2019 1:38 p.m.

GUEST: Joshua Goldstein, co-author, “A Bright Future”

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Related Story: Is Nuclear Power The Best Option To Slow Climate Change?


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

California is moving away from nuclear power. San Onofre closed over five years ago and Diablo Canyon the last nuclear power plant in California is due to shut down in 2025. But a new book is out that says nuclear power is the best tool we have to meet our energy needs and prevent catastrophic global warming. Joshua Goldstein the co-author of a bright future joins us to discuss why he thinks nuclear power is our best option. Joshua thank you for joining us. It's good to be with you. So now you yourself were previously against using nuclear power.

What made you go from being against it to being for it.

So when I really looked at it as a global trends person someone who's comfortable looking at problems with data and facts I found that you just about can't solve climate change without a big expansion of nuclear power. And so I learned about nuclear power and found that a lot of what I believed about it actually wasn't true and that was what led to the book.

So people talk a lot about how renewable energy is getting more and more common and solar and wind for example why cannot they provide our energy needs.

Well two reasons. And the most important one has to do with speed. If you look at how much clean energy we're going to need by 2050 clean electricity not only to replace today's grid that's predominantly fossil fuel but also to replace fossil fuels in transportation buildings heat and industry all of which will need to use electricity or some product created by electricity in order to decarbonise the world. The scale is just vast. And so we need not only good solutions but fast solutions. And what I found was that in Sweden when they rolled up nuclear power they could add clean energy really fast.

But in Germany where they tried to do this with renewables it took about five times as long to put it another way what we could do on the Swedish model would take about 30 years to decarbonise the electricity system. The same thing using the German model with wind and solar would take 150 years. We don't have the 150 years and then the second problem with the 100 percent renewables. I'm all for renewables but the 100 percent doesn't work because they're intermittent and when they are not producing such as when the sun goes down in California then you need something else to back them up.

Right now that's coal power and nuclear power imported into California every night.

OK so if we are to prevent devastating climate change. Realistically what kind of energy mix do you believe we should be using in the future what are our best options.

I think that our best option is what Sweden did which is about half renewables and then the other half nuclear power. But to do that you need to keep building out renewables really fast as we're doing. But you also need to start building out nuclear power really fast which we're not doing yet.

Now there is a byproduct from nuclear power and in the United States there has been no agreement on where to store the waste here at Santa Fe. We've had many issues after the plant was shut down most recently with the way that nuclear waste is being buried on site where it's being buried is a great concern. Why don't you think that Congress needs to reach agreement on what to do with nuclear waste before we build any more reactors nuclear waste is probably the most misunderstood aspect of the whole nuclear power issue.

And what people don't understand is how tiny the amounts are and how much safer the whole thing is than other industrial wastes.

For instance coal waste which includes arsenic lead mercury all kinds of horrible things and it's just dumped into ponds and they leach into water and they kill lots of people or coal soot from coal burning power plants which goes into the air and causes cancer and emphysema and kills something like a million people worldwide every year. So by contrast nuclear waste is really tiny because nuclear power is so concentrated the entire U.S. nuclear spent fuel to date from 60 years would fit onto a football field stacked about 20 feet high.

So it's just not large quantities. These other industrial waste we just throw them down wells or throw them into pools and they do hurt people. But life goes on because you want the energy source. What we have to do with nuclear power is start to have an attitude of costs and benefits not zero risk. Not that if anything ever leaks thousands of years in the future that's the end of the world.

It isn't one gigawatt nuclear plant which is a big plant produces about two of these casks per year and they sit there until politics and policy will catch up with them might be decades in the future might be a hundred years in the future. Eventually reactors will be built that can burn that waste for new fuel. And we're designing those now or alternatively we can bury them underground in a permanent repository. The way Finland is doing but for right now they're not a problem. And climate change is the problem right now.

That's what we need to focus on. That's where we need to take strong action in the next 10 years.

Yeah I would point out that Senator Fred is 75 50 ton cannisters just being buried right now and they already have another 50 canisters on site. So it sounds like they've been generating a bit more than two canisters a year but I think that the main premise of your book that I was interested in is that you suggest that climate change is a more immediate threat to our future survival than any possible problems with nuclear waste. And so I wanted to ask you in terms of timeline are you assuming that the nuclear waste won't be a problem and that we'll be able to solve that problem within the next 100 years and that we could be gone in 100 years if we wait for climate change.

That's right. And the idea that something that might go wrong in 100 years and let's say something goes wrong and it kills hundreds of people in a hundred years. So I just told you a million people every year die from the coal that we're burning. So you just have to have some sense of scale and relative risks and benefits. If you look overall at the last 60 years nuclear power has been by far the safest form of energy that we have 400 times safer than coal in terms of number of people killed per kilowatt hour generated.

And you know oil trains derail and blow up whole villages and methane gas explodes and level city blocks all the energy sources hydro electric dam failed in China in the 1970s and killed tens of thousands of people. So all the energy sources have ups and downs problems and benefits. And nuclear is the safest of them.

I guess we here in San Diego are a little sensitive with that nuclear waste being buried with 8 million people around it. So close.

But let me ask you how many people have been hurt by that nuclear waste in San Diego.

I don't think we're talking about the past. I think we're talking about the future.

Well how many people are being hurt by it. Because right now in the United States almost 20000 people a year are dying from emphysema and cancer from coal that we're burning. So you can't talk about nuclear power versus fairy dust the solar cells that you're putting in in California are going to out in 25 years and be shipped off to Cambodia or somewhere to be disassembled by children and they have toxic waste in them and they will kill people. Everything does. But you have to have costs and benefits. You can't have a power source where you say because we're burying this toxic waste and we're afraid of it and it might do harm some day therefore we're not going to use our best shot to scale up clean energy really fast on a large scale and stop climate change.

That's the wrong tradeoff.

And let's just address the cost because you do say that nuclear is costly and that we need 100 nuclear reactors per year worldwide in order to meet our needs. How competitive would it be how could you reduce the costs.

What South Korea has done is to take the same design in the same team and build one reactor after another after another. And every time they do the cost comes down they're producing nuclear electricity for three and a half cents a kilowatt hour in South Korea which is cheaper since they don't have their own natural gas it's cheaper than gas coal hydro or anything there. But what we want to do in the future is to start building nuclear plants centrally instead of each one on site with its unique design. If we can build them in shipyards or factories to a standard design and start cranking them out more like Boeing jetliners coming off an assembly line then we'll get the economies of scale.

Well Joshua thanks so much for your perspective. It's a pleasure to be with you. That's Joshua Goldstein co-author of a bright future. And we have a longer version of this interview on PBS Datto slash midday.