Just about anyone who has ever visited the downstream terminus of Utah’s scenic Lake Powell has seen the challenge. There amid the stark red rock stands the coal powered Navajo Power Plant. The plant uses Mother Earth’s oxygen to combust a reported 8 million tons of coal annually (over 900 tons of coal per hour) and its giant chimneys each year belch a flume of approximately 20 million tons of carbon dioxide, “greenhouse gas.” When it is cold outside the flume is a giant white column rising skyward. I have seen the carbon column from commercial airliners at 35,000 feet. On still, cold mornings from afar the flume is slender, straight, and shiny like a hypodermic needle. I suspect that when conditions are just right, the astronauts on the International Space Station can see the white flume against Utah’s dark red rock.
Just about everyone is in favor of conservation and renewable energy sources, but no matter how I do the math it will be decades before these options can stop the CO2 flume of the Navajo Plant, and thousands of other fossil fuel power plants around the world. (Indeed, China is reportedly starting up new coal power plants at the rate of one a week.) Fossil fuel power plants are the largest single source of carbon dioxide emissions — 40 percent of the world’s total pumped into the atmosphere day in and day out while we eat, sleep, work and play.
There is a proven near term solution and two major industrial nations have found it — nuclear power. Decades ago both Japan and France committed to a grid significantly powered by Mr. Atom, not to solve global warming (then a virtually unknown threat) but to achieve energy independence in light of their absence of domestic fossil fuel reserves. Japan’s nuclear plants provide about one-third of the country’s electricity. In France, 80 percent of the electricity is provided by nuclear power. While the Japanese are relatively demure about their affair with Mister Atom, not so the French. French President Sarkozy is downright evangelical, urging other nations to make friends with Mister Atom. He has a point. Some of France’s best real estate is near sea level and if global warming raises the oceans just a foot or two France will be invaded by sea water, among other ills wrought by global warming.
Is there time to go nuke, shutter thousands of fossil fuel power plants, and quickly curtail the major production of greenhouse gases? Of all places, the oil-rich Arab nation of Abu Dhabi is building its first atomic power plant (with U.S. and European support) and the entire project is scheduled to take just eight years from concept to its first carbon-free kilowatt. Based upon this timeline, by making friends with Mister Atom the major economies of the world could virtually eliminate fossil fuel power plants, and the biggest single source of greenhouse gasses, in less than a decade.
Okay, so no one wants to live next door to a nuclear power plant and there are some big issues like by-products and threat of terrorist attack. But our species is at a crossroads and we are truly confronted with a lesser-of-two-evils choice. If one takes the threat of global warming seriously, then nuclear power demands serious consideration. It could be an interim solution. As conservation and other renewable energy sources come online by mid-century, the world could de-commission the nukes one-by-one. Think of the nuclear option as a giant antacid pill slowing Mother Earth’s gas attack and possibly saving our planet as we know it from the shores of Lake Powell to the Arctic and Antarctic.