Lund debate focuses on nuclear power, climate change

Lund debate
Varun Hegde/Provided
Daniel Kammen, left, Annelise Riles and Lauri Muranen at the 2016 Lund Critical Debate May 3.

When Finnish nuclear power advocate Lauri Muranen squared off against renewable energy expert Daniel M. Kammen in the 2016 Lund Critical Debate May 3, members of the audience may have been justified in expecting a pro-nuke, anti-nuke smackdown. What they got was more subtle.

“Nuclear energy should absolutely be part of the mix where it makes sense,” said Kammen, who runs the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley.

“I wouldn’t mind 100 percent renewable if we could do it,” offered Muranen, head of the World Energy Council chapter in Finland and an adviser to the nuclear industry there.

Where they disagreed was in what Kammen ‘84 called “the howevers and the buts.”

After all, the question under consideration was not, “Is nuclear power good or bad?” but “Is nuclear power the answer to climate change?” And on that their views were very different.

Kammen, a nuclear physicist, argued that nuclear energy has proved far riskier and costlier than its champions would like to admit. With better technology, better management and better oversight, he said, it might be part of a sensible energy mix in the future. But getting there will take decades, while solar, wind, biofuels and other renewables can be ramped up immediately.

“We have one generation to solve this,” he said, referring to climate change.

Kammen’s group at Berkeley has developed hundreds of models for integrated energy systems that meet greenhouse gas emissions targets with no nuclear power. Many of these rely heavily on distributed power, in which electricity is generated close to where it is used.

“It’s really about building systems, not about peddling a technology,” he said.

Muranen said he’s a committed environmentalist who used to work for the anti-nuclear organization Greenpeace. He agreed with Kammen that climate change is the most urgent challenge facing the planet. It’s that urgency, he said, that made him rethink his position on nuclear energy.

“Nuclear power is not the silver bullet that is going to solve all the problems,” he said, “but I consider it an important part of a solution.”

Nuclear technology has proven to be safe and effective in countries like Finland and France, he said. Delays in plant construction tend to be political, not technical. Costs may be high, but unlike fossil fuels, “externalities” like waste storage and security safeguards are built into the price. Renewable technologies like wind and solar, he argued, are only competitive because of government subsidies.

“The world would be mad if [it] didn’t consider developing nuclear technology,” Muranen concluded.

Kammen countered that nuclear power may make sense for a country like Finland, and research should continue on technologies such as fusion and small modular reactors. But for much of the world nuclear energy is an expensive distraction at a time when cheaper and safer options are available.

Annelise Riles, the Jack G. Clarke Professor at Cornell Law School and director of the Meridian 180 project and a professor of anthropology, moderated the event.

Part of a larger discussion

The debate was one of a series of events sponsored by the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies on the topic of nuclear power and climate change, director Hiro Miyazaki explained in his introductory remarks.

“Nuclear energy is not the sort of issue that you can contain in a single box,” Miyazaki said. “It raises questions of physics and engineering, of politics and economics, of geology and climatology, of culture and law, of national defense and international trade, and of public health and public safety…. In other words, it’s a perfect topic for a university like this one.”

On the fifth anniversary of the Fukushima disaster in March, Miyazaki said, the center sponsored a roundtable discussion featuring the accident’s lead investigator. In July, the center and the Meridian 180 project (a partnership between the Einaudi Center and Cornell Law School) will sponsor a meeting in Japan “designed to look for ways to move the conversation forward about national, regional and global regimes for regulating nuclear energy safety.”

In September, Miyazaki said, the Einaudi Center’s annual Bartels World Affairs Lecture will be given by Svetlana Alexievich, winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature, who chronicled the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster.

The Lund Critical Debates Series brings to campus speakers of prominence in international affairs who can address topical issues from a variety of perspectives and is funded by Judith Lund Biggs ’57.

Jonathan Miller is associate director for communications at the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies.

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