“Our Power Grid Could Have Been Carbon-Free Years Ago”


Anyone who watches Silkwood at a formative age, seeing Meryl Streep furiously scrubbed and showered, might think nuclear power plants are the devil. And there certainly is the devil in their details: An accident or purposeful act of destruction can not only kill swaths of people but also “salt the earth.” Even in the best-case, calamity-free scenario, the waste will be on our hands for an awful long time.

In a NYT op-ed, Peter Thiel argues in favor of going nuclear to combat climate change, pointing out that it was only human error that brought about horrors like Chernobyl. Sure, but human error (and the machine kind) aren’t going away. Neither are earthquakes or other natural disasters which can overwhelm fail-safe measures. It’s not a flawless solution that won’t make us pay in some painful way. The best argument in its favor is that its costs are far more easily absorbed than are those of rising sea levels.

Knowing that a species-wide catastrophe will certainly result from continued carbon emissions does make it clear that our previous weighing of coal and atomic energy were off-kilter.

An excerpt:

The need for energy alternatives was already clear to investors a decade ago, which is why they poured funding into clean technology during the early 2000s. But while the money was there, the technology wasn’t: The result was a series of bankruptcies and the scandal of Solyndra, the solar panel manufacturer in California that went bankrupt in 2011 after receiving a federal guarantee of hundreds of millions of dollars. Wind and solar together provide less than 2 percent of the world’s energy, and they aren’t growing anywhere near fast enough to replace fossil fuels.

What’s especially strange about the failed push for renewables is that we already had a practical plan back in the 1960s to become fully carbon-free without any need of wind or solar: nuclear power. But after years of cost overruns, technical challenges and the bizarre coincidence of an accident at Three Mile Island and the 1979 release of the Hollywood horror movie The China Syndrome, about a hundred proposed reactors were canceled. If we had kept building, our power grid could have been carbon-free years ago.

Instead, we went in reverse.•