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On the April 9, 2015, the SDSN’s Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project (DDPP) hosted a workshop on “Nuclear Power’s Possible Role in Lowering Global Carbon Output” at Columbia University. The event brought together a wide range of climate and energy experts as panelists, including:

  • Jeffrey Sachs, Director, the Earth Institute; Director, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN)
  • James Hansen, Adjunct Professor, the Earth Institute; Director, Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions Program of Columbia University Earth Institute; formerly Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies
  • Per Peterson, Floyd Professor of Nuclear Engineering, UC Berkeley
  • Andrew Kanter, Assistant Professor of Biomedical Informatics and Epidemiology, Columbia University Medical Center; Director, Global Health Informatics Center
  • Pushker Kharecha, Climate Scientist and Deputy Director, Columbia Earth Institute’s Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions Program
  • David Sandalow, Inaugural Fellow at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University; formerly Under Secretary of Energy (Acting) and Assistant Secretary for Policy & International Affairs, United States Department of Energy
  • Judd Gregg, Chair, Nuclear Matters; formerly Republican Governor and Senator for New Hampshire
  • Richard Lester, Japan Steel Industry Professor and Head of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Faculty Chair and Founding Director, Industrial Performance Center
  • Eric Loewen, Chief Consulting Engineer, GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH)
  • Fabian Wagner, Gerhard R. Andlinger Center Visiting Professor in Energy and the Environment, Princeton University
  • Nobuo Tanaka, Fellow, Center on Global Energy Policy; formerly Executive Director, International Energy Agency (IEA)
  • Tom Blees, President, Science Council of Global Initiatives

The DDPP maps the practical feasibility of deep decarbonization of economies with aims to reduce carbon emissions to 1.5 tons/person by 2050 to stay within the 2°C  limit on global warming. There are four main pillars deep decarbonization: energy efficiency, near-zero carbon electricity, electrification and bio sequestration. Nuclear energy can help realize the near-zero carbon electricity pillar.

The workshop discussions ranged from engineering and technical questions pertaining to building and managing nuclear power plants, the need for innovation and new technology in the field and in designing fourth generation nuclear power plants, the potential health impacts of using nuclear energy, the question of nuclear waste management and disposal, comparisons between nuclear energy and other potential replacements for fossil fuels such as renewable energy, and finally the economics of switching from a carbon economy to a nuclear energy economy.

Most of the panelists affirmed, in many ways, that there are still significant problems and challenges associated with nuclear energy, including concerns regarding health, security, and long-term storage of nuclear waste. However, discussions also acknowledged that major nuclear energy has made a major contribution to the mitigation of human-induced climate change and air pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

The workshop presented a range of different perspectives on the role of nuclear energy in deep decarbonization. Some speakers argued that currently, renewable energy cannot scale to reduce carbon emissions substantially. However, most speakers affirmed the need to continue to develop renewable energy technologies that can potentially supplement nuclear energy and reduce the carbon footprint of nuclear energy cycles. Jeffrey Sachs’ close remark acknowledged the nuances of the discussion: “Nuclear power is one part of the puzzle. We are not here to solve this very complex problem. We are looking for the potentials and the next steps in the pathway towards deep decarbonization.”