A Bright Future: How Some Nations have Solved Climate Change and How the Rest can Follow
© 2019 Joshua Goldstein & Staffan Qvist
It is past time for the global community to take climate change seriously. In order to make any progress, we need to actively reduce emissions by 3% per year. Accomplishing such a goal is beyond lifestyle tweaks like cycling to work or wearing a sweater instead of cranking up the heat. Instead, we need to make a change at the source, by rethinking our energy policy. A Bright Future argues that responding to the threat of climate change can be an opportunity for life-expanding reinvention, not a burden to endure — and it suggests that the answer has been staring us in the face all along.
Coal-fired electrical plants are far and away the largest concentrated polluters on the planet, used across the world for cheap, available energy, the very albumen of developing economies. There are relatively cleaner fossil fuel alternatives, like oil and gas, but shifting to these primarily would only slow emissions growth — not reduce it. Renewable have their advantages, but are too unreliable to form the backbone of an industrial economy: even large arrays like Europe’s continent grid experience highly variable output as the weather fluctuates. There is an alternative, though; a fuel source that allows for reliable, clean, and efficient production throughout the year — a source that allowed Sweden to largely decarbonize their economy, and in such a way as to increase their quality of life rather than decrease it. They call it kärnkraft, but you know it better as nuclear energy.
Nuclear energy has a massive PR problem in the west, despite its sterling safety record. After the early chapters arguing the need for energy reorientation, and the inadequacy of ‘clean’ fossil fuels and renewables to the challenge, Goldstein and Qvist present their argument for the re-embrace of nuclear energy, addressing concerns about safety, pollutants, etc. Their defense of nuclear redoubles as a continued attack on the alternatives — after examining three high profile nuclear accidents, Qvist & Goldstein compare nuclear’s body count to that created by oil&coal accidents, and ditto for environmental harm. Solar, too, gets its nose bloodied given the toxicity of its array materials once it reaches the end of its lifecycle. The authors suspect that Cold War dread, the mystique of radiation from SF films throughout the year, and the intense media coverage of nuclear’s outliers have contributed to making nuclear seem more dangerous than it is. In reality, thousands upon thousands of reactor hours have been accumulated by land-based plants and nuclear navies since nuclear energy became a possibility. Accidents are extreme outliers.
Nuclear energy has already proven itself a superior energy source, and it’s only going to get better. Most nuclear plants in operation today in France, Sweden, etc are second-gen designs. Russia, China, and India are actively pursuing nuclear energy to power their expansion, using safer-still third gen designs, and in both the west and east fourth-gen plants are being designed and prototyped. Reorienting global energy production to nuclear will necessitate standardization; the authors suggest following France’s model, where one or two designs are simply repeated over and over again. Fourth-gen plants using modular designs (fission meets IKEA!) will increase standardization and cut costs tremendously.
As an argument for nuclear energy, A Bright Future is excellent. Frankly, no politician who won’t admit it as an option should be taken seriously. The claim that it will decarbonize our economies is harder to embrace, however, given that transportation and industry (which often uses its own power plants) account for about the same amount of emissions as energy production. It may be that getting that segment decarbonized is enough by itself to do the trick, but I’m uncertain. The authors don’t examine other contributors aside from a brief mention that electric cars will play an important part. On the whole, this book is most impressive, and I especially appreciated how the authors lured readers in by allowing them to first appreciate the promise and potential of kärnkraft before revealing the translation. It was a clever little trick that might enable readers to take nuclear energy more seriously, having examined its virtues without their preconceptions at play.
Energy Myths and Realities: Bringing Science to the Energy Debate, Vaclav Smil