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Filmed on Friday January 13, 02006

Ralph Cavanagh, Peter Schwartz

Nuclear Power, Climate Change and the Next 10,000 Years

Ralph Cavanagh

Peter Schwartz

Peter Schwartz is co-founder and chair of Global Business Network, author of The Art of the Long View and Inevitable Surprises.

In a very pointed discussion, two energy experts bring opposite perspectives to the question of whether global climate change justifies reviving nuclear power. Ralph Cavanagh is co-director of the Energy Program at the National Resources Defense Council. Peter Schwartz is co-founder and chairman of Global Business Network.

Climate change and nuclear prospects

Given the power to decide who would go first— anti-nuke Ralph Cavanagh from Natural Resources Defense Counsel or pro-nuke Peter Schwartz from Global Business Network— the large audience Friday night voted for Schwartz to make the opening argument.

It is the threat of “abrupt climate change” that converted him to support new emphasis on nuclear power, Schwartz said. Gradual global warming is clearly now under way, and there is increasing reason to believe that human activity is driving it, mostly through the burning of coal and oil. If warming is all that happens, it will be an enormous problem, but some regions of the Earth would gain (Russia, Canada) while many others would lose.

In the event of abrupt climate change, though, everyone loses. The most likely change would be a sudden (in one decade) shift to a much colder, drier, and windier world. The world’s carrying capacity for humans would plummet, driving human population from the current 6.5 billion to as low as 2 billion, with most of the losses from war. It would be a civilization-threatening catastrophe. From research Schwartz has led for the Pentagon as well as from his own training in fluid dynamics, he thinks that continuation of the current warming is very likely to trigger the kind of radical climate instability that has been the norm in Earth’s past, except for the last 10,000 years of uncharacteristically stable climate. Therefore everything must be done to head off the shift to climate instability.

Meanwhile, Schwartz said, world demand for energy will continue to grow for decades, as two billion more people climb out of poverty and developing nations become fully developed economies. China and India alone will double or quadruple their energy use over the next 50 years. We will run out of oil in that period. That leaves coal or nuclear for electricity. Conservation is crucial, but it doesn’t generate power. Renewables must grow fast, but they cannot hope to fill the whole need. Nuclear technology has improved its efficiency and safety and can improve a lot more. Reprocessing fuel will add further efficiency.

The discussion format called for Cavanagh to quiz Schwartz for ten minutes, drawing out his views further. Cavanagh asked, “What about the storage of nuclear waste?” “We defined the problem wrong,” Schwartz said. “Storage for thousands of years is not needed. The present storage on site in concrete casks is working, and the ‘waste’ is available as a further energy source with later technology.” In the discussion Schwartz also pointed out that new reactor sites are not needed in the US, since all the existing sites are expandable.

The format called for Cavanagh to now summarize Schwartz’s argument. He did so to Schwartz’s satisfaction, adding a point Schwartz missed— recent findings indicating that the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is now the highest it has been in 25,000 to 400,000 years.

It was Ralph Cavanagh’s turn to present for 15 minutes, striding the front of the stage. He began by agreeing that messing with the atmosphere and thus the climate is a “suicidal” experiment for humanity to be conducting, and it has to be stopped. He agreed that nuclear should not be considered taboo and should be included as a candidate clean power source, but its history is not encouraging. No new reactors have built in the US since 1973. Nevada has stonewalled on waste storage at Yucca Mountain. The nuclear industry has all manner of government subsidies, loan guarantees, and protections from liability. It has never competed in the open market with other energy sources.

California, Cavanagh said, has led the way in developing a balanced energy policy. Places like China are paying close attention. PG&E has become the world’s largest investor in efficiency, led by Carl Weinberg (who was in the audience and got a round of applause). And now there are signs that California may become the leader in setting limits to carbon emissions. Within limits like that, then the private sector can compete with full entrepreneurial zest, and may the best technologies win. Nuclear would have to compete fairly with new forms of biofuels and with ever improving renewables.

Schwartz asked Cavanagh about the large government subsidies for solar research while there have been none for nuclear (except fusion). Cavanagh said the subsidies were declining, and should. There should be more funding for R&D in biofuels and other alternatives, but the main role for government should be in setting emission standards and then let the private sector duke it out for the best solutions.

Schwartz summarized Cavanagh’s argument to his satisfaction (many later reported they liked that feature of the evening), and then a host of written questions came from the audience. Asked for a catalog of desirable new technologies, Schwartz wanted cheaper solar, effective energy storage (batteries are painfully limited), and a better electrical grid, while Cavanagh would like more R&D on vehicles and breakthroughs on coal processing.

My take on the evening is that Cavanagh was particularly persuasive on the need for nuclear to compete on the open market, and Schwartz was persuasive on the direness of climate prospects and the relative readiness of nuclear power to help.

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