We need nuclear power to solve climate change | Joe Lassiter

It's easy to forget that last night, one billion people went to sleep without access to electricity. One billion people. Two and a half billion people did not have access to clean cooking fuels or clean heating fuels. Those are the problems in the developing world. And it's easy for us not to be empathetic with those people who seem so distanced from us. But even in our own world, the developed world, we see the tension of stagnant economies impacting the lives of people around us. We see it in whole pieces of the economy, where the people involved have lost hope about the future and despair about the present. We see that in the Brexit vote. We see that in the Sanders/Trump campaigns in my own country. But even in countries as recently turning the corner towards being in the developed world, in China, we see the difficulty that President Xi has as he begins to un-employ so many people in his coal and mining industries who see no future for themselves.

As we as a society figure out how to manage the problems of the developed world and the problems of the developing world, we have to look at how we move forward and manage the environmental impact of those decisions. We've been working on this problem for 25 years, since Rio, the Kyoto Protocols. Our most recent move is the Paris treaty, and the resulting climate agreements that are being ratified by nations around the world. I think we can be very hopeful that those agreements, which are bottom-up agreements, where nations have said what they think they can do, are genuine and forthcoming for the vast majority of the parties. The unfortunate thing is that now, as we look at the independent analyses of what those climate treaties are liable to yield, the magnitude of the problem before us becomes clear. This is the United States Energy Information Agency's assessment of what will happen if the countries implement the climate commitments that they've made in Paris between now and 2040. It shows basically CO2 emissions around the world over the next 30 years.

There are three things that you need to look at and appreciate. One, CO2 emissions are expected to continue to grow for the next 30 years. In order to control climate, CO2 emissions have to literally go to zero because it's the cumulative emissions that drive heating on the planet. This should tell you that we are losing the race to fossil fuels. The second thing you should notice is that the bulk of the growth comes from the developing countries, from China, from India, from the rest of the world, which includes South Africa and Indonesia and Brazil, as most of these countries move their people into the lower range of lifestyles that we literally take for granted in the developed world. The final thing that you should notice is that each year, about 10 gigatons of carbon are getting added to the planet's atmosphere, and then diffusing into the ocean and into the land.

That's on top of the 550 gigatons that are in place today. At the end of 30 years, we will have put 850 gigatons of carbon into the air, and that probably goes a long way towards locking in a 2-4 degree C increase in global mean surface temperatures, locking in ocean acidification and locking in sea level rise. Now, this is a projection made by men by the actions of society, and it's ours to change, not to accept. But the magnitude of the problem is something we need to appreciate. Different nations make different energy choices. It's a function of their natural resources. It's a function of their climate. It's a function of the development path that they've followed as a society. It's a function of where on the surface of the planet they are.

Are they where it's dark a lot of the time, or are they at the mid-latitudes? Many, many, many things go into the choices of countries, and they each make a different choice. The overwhelming thing that we need to appreciate is the choice that China has made. China has made the choice, and will make the choice, to run on coal. The United States has an alternative. It can run on natural gas as a result of the inventions of fracking and shale gas, which we have here. They provide an alternative. The OECD Europe has a choice. It has renewables that it can afford to deploy in Germany because it's rich enough to afford to do it. The French and the British show interest in nuclear power. Eastern Europe, still very heavily committed to natural gas and to coal, and with natural gas that comes from Russia, with all of its entanglements. China has many fewer choices and a much harder row to hoe. If you look at China, and you ask yourself why has coal been important to it, you have to remember what China's done.

China brought people to power, not power to people. It didn't do rural electrification. It urbanized. It urbanized by taking low-cost labor and low-cost energy, creating export industries that could fund a tremendous amount of growth. If we look at China's path, all of us know that prosperity in China has dramatically increased. In 1980, 80 percent of China's population lived below the extreme poverty level, below the level of having $1.90 per person per day. By the year 2000, only 20 percent of China's population lived below the extreme poverty level — a remarkable feat, admittedly, with some costs in civil liberties that would be tough to accept in the Western world. But the impact of all that wealth allowed people to get massively better nutrition.

It allowed water pipes to be placed. It allowed sewage pipes to be placed, dramatic decrease in diarrheal diseases, at the cost of some outdoor air pollution. But in 1980, and even today, the number one killer in China is indoor air pollution, because people do not have access to clean cooking and heating fuels. In fact, in 2040, it's still estimated that 200 million people in China will not have access to clean cooking fuels. They have a remarkable path to follow. India also needs to meet the needs of its own people, and it's going to do that by burning coal. When we look at the EIA's projections of coal burning in India, India will supply nearly four times as much of its energy from coal as it will from renewables. It's not because they don't know the alternatives; it's because rich countries can do what they choose, poor countries do what they must. So what can we do to stop coal's emissions in time? What can we do that changes this forecast that's in front of us? Because it's a forecast that we can change if we have the will to do it. First of all, we have to think about the magnitude of the problem.

Between now and 2040, 800 to 1,600 new coal plants are going to be built around the world. This week, between one and three one-gigawatt coal plants are being turned on around the world. That's happening regardless of what we want, because the people that rule their countries, assessing the interests of their citizens, have decided it's in the interest of their citizens to do that. And that's going to happen unless they have a better alternative. And every 100 of those plants will use up between one percent and three percent of the Earth's climate budget. So every day that you go home thinking that you should do something about global warming, at the end of that week, remember: somebody fired up a coal plant that's going to run for 50 years and take away your ability to change it.

What we've forgotten is something that Vinod Khosla used to talk about, a man of Indian ethnicity but an American venture capitalist. And he said, back in the early 2000s, that if you needed to get China and India off of fossil fuels, you had to create a technology that passed the "Chindia test," "Chindia" being the appending of the two words. It had to be first of all viable, meaning that technically, they could implement it in their country, and that it would be accepted by the people in the country. Two, it had to be a technology that was scalable, that it could deliver the same benefits on the same timetable as fossil fuels, so that they can enjoy the kind of life, again, that we take for granted. And third, it had to be cost-effective without subsidy or without mandate. It had to stand on its own two feet; it could not be maintained for that many people if in fact, those countries had to go begging or had some foreign country say, "I won't trade with you," in order to get the technology shift to occur.

If you look at the Chindia test, we simply have not come up with alternatives that meet that test. That's what the EIA forecast tells us. China's building 800 gigawatts of coal, 400 gigawatts of hydro, about 200 gigawatts of nuclear, and on an energy-equivalent basis, adjusting for intermittency, about 100 gigawatts of renewables. 800 gigawatts of coal. They're doing that, knowing the costs better than any other country, knowing the need better than any other country. But that's what they're aiming for in 2040 unless we give them a better choice. To give them a better choice, it's going to have to meet the Chindia test. If you look at all the alternatives that are out there, there are really two that come near to meeting it. First is this area of new nuclear that I'll talk about in just a second. It's a new generation of nuclear plants that are on the drawing boards around the world, and the people who are developing these say we can get them in position to demo by 2025 and to scale by 2030, if you will just let us. The second alternative that could be there in time is utility-scale solar backed up with natural gas, which we can use today, versus the batteries which are still under development.

So what's holding new nuclear back? Outdated regulations and yesterday's mindsets. We have not used our latest scientific thinking on radiological health to think how we communicate with the public and govern the testing of new nuclear reactors. We have new scientific knowledge that we need to use in order to improve the way we regulate nuclear industry. The second thing is we've got a mindset that it takes 25 years and 2 to 5 billion dollars to develop a nuclear power plant. That comes from the historical, military mindset of the places nuclear power came from. These new nuclear ventures are saying that they can deliver power for 5 cents a kilowatt hour; they can deliver it for 100 gigawatts a year; they can demo it by 2025; and they can deliver it in scale by 2030, if only we give them a chance. Right now, we're basically waiting for a miracle. What we need is a choice. If they can't make it safe, if they can't make it cheap, it should not be deployed.

But what I want you to do is not carry an idea forward, but write your leaders, write the head of the NGOs you support, and tell them to give you the choice, not the past. Thank you very much. (Applause).