Four prominent climate scientists are urging environmentalists to support the development of "safer" nuclear energy systems as an alternative to fossil fuels that contribute to global warming.
The U.S. and Australia-based scientists made the appeal in a letter issued Sunday
and addressed to people "influencing environmental policy but opposed to nuclear power."
Many environmentalists believe nuclear plants are too dangerous and expensive to replace fossil fuels. They say governments instead should invest in energy sources such as solar and wind to meet the world's needs.
But the authors of the letter say solar and wind systems cannot be developed fast enough "to deliver cheap and reliable power at the scale the global economy requires." They say there must be a "substantial role" for nuclear power in any "credible" solution to stabilizing the climate.
The four scientists say the risks of expanding nuclear energy are much smaller than those of continuing to rely on fossil fuel power plants, which they say treat the atmosphere "as a waste dump."
U.S. environmental advocacy group, the Natural Resources Defense Council, rejected the letter's emphasis on nuclear power. Spokesman Bob Deans says the world gains nothing from "substituting one set of environmental nightmares for another."
"We're concerned with safety, sustainability and cost. What we saw in [the Japanese city of] Fukushima [in 2011] was a reminder of the risk of a catastrophic disaster from nuclear power plants," he said. "Sustainability - we have problems [with that]. We have yet to figure out, 60 years after the dawn of this technology, how to deal with the waste from nuclear power plants. And there's also a security problem with having a terrorist get their hands on some of this material that can be used to make weapons. Finally, it's the cost issue. Nuclear power is one of the costliest ways to produce electricity right now."
Deans said the NRDC believes the United States should invest in making homes, workplaces and vehicles more energy efficient, so that people can do "more with less." He also highlighted China's investment in wind and solar power as a positive step by one of the world's top polluters.
But China also is seeking to export its nuclear energy technology after launching 17 domestic reactors and starting construction of 28 more - a rate of nuclear development that far outpaces the United States.
Deans said China is dealing with a unique energy challenge because it is trying to rapidly lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.
"We certainly understand China's growing energy needs, no question about that," he said. "At the same time, there is no more technologically advanced country in the world than Japan, and what we've seen in Fukushima has been an unrolling disaster that the Japanese have yet to get a handle on. That needs to be a warning to everyone around the world that we need to be very careful about this technology."
The pro-nuclear letter was written by Kenneth Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution, Kerry Emanuel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, James Hansen of Columbia University and Tom Wigley of the University of Adelaide.