IS it time to think the unthinkable and embrace nuclear power as the solution to the catastrophe of climate change?

To many environmentalists such a suggestion is downright heresy, but the debate surrounding nuclear power and its role in arresting climate change has now been opened up with the publication of a new book by the acclaimed scientist and eco-activist Dr James Lawrence Powell.

In The 2084 Report: A History of Global Warming from the Future, Powell envisions how climate change will unfold over the course of the 21st century. It makes for horrifying reading. Using the latest science, he projects just how severely global warming will affect human life –leading to floods, wildfires, droughts and famines, melting ice caps, wars, mass migration, political unrest, catastrophic loss of species and habitats, coastal erosion, devastated cities, and a huge tally of destruction leaving millions dead.

Powell is a professor of geochemistry who has held a series of esteemed posts in American academia including stints as president of Franklin and Marshall College, and president of Reed College. He was also president of the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia – one of the oldest centres for science education in the US – and president and director of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. He served on America’s National Science Board for 12 years, and an asteroid has been named after him.

Powell argues in his new book that the world is right at the tipping point today where climate change will accelerate out of control unless action is taken immediately by governments. He refers to the year 2020 as “the point of no return”, and says that political attempts to arrest climate change, like the Paris Agreement, have not worked. If the world keeps warming as it currently is, Powell says, disaster is unavoidable. That means we have to break from fossil fuels right away.

However, the dilemma, Powell says, is this: we haven’t developed our renewable energy industries to anywhere near the level required “to give them any chance of producing the amount of carbon-free energy needed to save humanity”.

Trying to get to 100% renewables in a decade is “infeasible”, he says.

The only alternative, Powell suggests in his book, is to turn to nuclear power – a low-carbon energy source like wind, solar and water power – in the short-term. If we move towards nuclear power now, he believes, fossil fuels could be eliminated over the coming years. This would give us enough time to advance renewable technology to the level where nuclear power could then be phased out and replaced completely with solar, wave and wind energy.

If we take “the nuclear route”, Powell says, we will be “rid of fossil fuels”. He estimates that green energy technology will be far enough advanced “to replace … nuclear power plants” within a few decades. Powell says “if nations so chose” they could then “wean themselves off nuclear power” and achieve “100% renewable energy”.

Nuclear energy, he says, is “carbon-free like hydropower, cheaper than oil, much less detrimental to health than coal” and a proven, widespread technology. In terms of the strong opposition to nuclear energy based on fears around waste disposal and reactor accidents, Powell claims issues of storage can be surmounted, and he has presented evidence which he believes shows that fear of nuclear accidents is exaggerated.

Powell’s intervention in the climate debate comes as many countries in the world ponder how to make the switch from old, dirty carbon-creating fuel to cleaner energy without causing problems in the energy supply, damaging tax revenues, or causing unemployment in the energy sector. Signs of accelerating climate change are everywhere, from the thawing of the Siberian permafrost to fires raging through the Brazilian rainforest.

More than 75% of Scotland’s offshore workers currently say they would be willing to move from oil and gas to the renewable sector. Many, though, worry that there are limited opportunities to switch jobs, and retraining is prohibitively expensive. There are also fears for the future of jobs in the North Sea. Royal Dutch Shell has said it expects to cut up to 9,000 jobs as it looks to reduce spending amid the plunge in the price of crude oil triggered by the global pandemic.

Powell has looked at energy experiments in Sweden over recent decades as a possible solution to the climate change dilemma. He says that from the 1960s to mid-1970s, CO2 emissions in Sweden rose at the same rate as GDP – showing wealth was linked to oil and gas. However, by 1990, GDP per person had doubled while CO2 emissions had been cut in half. “Sweden,” says Powell, “had severed the Gordian knot that bound economic progress and fossil-fuel consumption.”

Sweden did so, Powell says, by using nuclear power. In the 1970s, Sweden built a series of reactors. By the 1980s, the cost of energy in Sweden had fallen to one of the lowest in the world. The country began to retire its fossil-fuel plants and “over time doubled its electricity consumption, including a fivefold increase in the use of nuclear-generated electricity for heating”.

France also “went heavily into nuclear power in the 1970s … greatly lowering its emissions and the cost of electricity”. Powell also cites Ontario in Canada, which built a series of new reactors from the 1970s to the 90s, “allowing nuclear energy to supply 60% of the province’s power and existing hydropower most of the rest”.

“A worldwide ramp-up of nuclear power at the same rate as those countries … could replace fossil fuels within about 25 years,” Powell writes. He accepts that for many environmental organisations, though, nuclear power is “off the table”. However, he says what’s needed is “more of it”.

The scientific consensus worldwide is that to prevent climate catastrophe global warming must be limited to a rise of two degrees celsius. Delaying action will “make that target harder to reach, and in a decade or so impossible”. Powell adds that expansion of nuclear power production could “cut fossil-fuel emissions enough between 2020 and 2050 to keep the global temperature rise under two degrees celsius and to eliminate fossil-fuel use”.

Powell is aware that people are “afraid of all things nuclear”, due to the use of atomic weapons during the Second World War, the threat of nuclear annihilation throughout the Cold War, and events like Three Mile Island in America, Chernobyl in the former USSR, and Fukushima in Japan.

However, he says that the “containment structure” at Three Mile Island “worked as designed and the accident had no immediate health effects. There was a lot of worry about long-term effects from the radiation released, but scientists later found little evidence of them. The damage to perception, however, had been done.”

Regarding Chernobyl, he says the disaster “was not an inevitability, but the product of a defective reactor design and a defective political system”. The number of deaths linked to the disaster range from 4,000 to 16,000.

Just this week, a Japanese court ruled that the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster was preventable. The event occurred when a tsunami wave overtopped existing barriers. The court said that the government could have taken measures to protect the site, based on expert assessments available in 2002 that indicated the possibility of a tsunami of more than 15 metres.

There were no deaths from radiation exposure in the immediate aftermath of the incident, though there were deaths linked to the evacuation process. In 2015, the number of thyroid cancers or detections of developing thyroid cancers in Fukushima Prefecture numbered 137.

However, it seems as yet still unclear whether these incidences of cancer are elevated above the rate in uncontaminated areas and therefore due to exposure to nuclear radiation. By 2018, one cancer death had been linked to radiation.

The choice between dirty fossil fuels and replacing them with nuclear power is something of a grim numbers game. Powell says in his book that coal power is “vastly more dangerous than nuclear”. From the 1960s to 2020, “tens of millions have died from burning coal – mainly from cancer-causing particles” while nuclear power has “cost at most several thousand lives”. Coal has caused “about 30 deaths per terawatt-hour” while nuclear caused about 0.1 deaths.

People who want to ban nuclear power, Powell says, are “in effect choosing a known and deadly killer, coal, over a technology [that’s] been proven to be much safer, and instead of destroying the world, might save it”. He also believes that millions of lives will be lost to global warming throughout the 21st century – compared to thousands of lives that might be lost to nuclear power accidents.

What about disposal of nuclear waste? Powell says that “if all the electricity an average American used in a lifetime” came from coal then “the resulting waste would weigh 136,000 pounds. But if the same amount of power had come from nuclear energy, the waste would weigh about two pounds and … fit in a soda can”. There have only been a “handful of incidents resulting from waste disposal and none had any health effects”, Powell claims.

Waste, he admits, is an issue we need to worry about, and closely monitor, but it is “not a reason to forgo nuclear energy”. The “storage problem”, he insists, can be “solved”. His claims may do little, however, to overcome pubic fears surrounding nuclear waste, disposal and storage, given that radioactive material can remain hazardous for thousands of years.

Powell says there is a common belief that nuclear power is “so controversial” that expanding it is “impossible politically”. However, he adds that with little action on global warming under way that position is a “self-fulfilling and dangerous prophecy”.

A “nuclear solution” to global warming, Powell insists, is not only “feasible but necessary”.

He also points out that when Sweden’s reactors were “at their peak”, the country introduced a carbon tax, while getting rid of most other energy taxes thereby “increasing the incentive for companies to move to low-carbon sources” like nuclear and renewables.

Powell’s solutions will make difficult reading for many, and large swathes of the environmental movement will see his talk of atomic power as a solution to climate change as heresy.

However, even a cursory reading of his book shows that this is a man who truly believes that history will judge us harshly unless we take the hard paths necessary right now and do everything within our power to tackle climate change. At the very least there should be a debate around his suggestion that we explore the “nuclear option”.

“I think it’s time for scientists to get up from the lab bench and speak out,” he says.

“I want my grandchildren to be able to say ... he did something. He tried to do something.”