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Carbon emissions

More nuclear power can speed CO2 cuts

Christiana Figueres and colleagues note that turning around global carbon dioxide emissions by 2020 may not be feasible through renewable energy alone (Nature 546, 593–595; 2017). Low-carbon nuclear power will be needed as well.

Historically, energy transitions take decades. When forest destruction in the time of Queen Elizabeth I forced Londoners to move from wood fuel to coal, they resisted fiercely. Many houses lacked chimneys, meat roasted over a coal fire tasted terrible, and preachers condemned the fuel as the Devil's excrement. Petroleum had little application beyond lubrication and lamp-lighting until the commercial introduction of the car in the late 1880s.

Concerns about accidents and waste disposal are delaying nuclear-power developments. Nuclear accidents have claimed fewer lives than any other energy source (A. Markandya and P. Wilkinson Lancet 370, 979–990; 2007), even including the death toll of the 2011 Fukushima disaster. Effective nuclear-waste disposal is possible: for example, the US Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, New Mexico, buries waste 700 metres below ground in a 1.8-kilometre-thick bed of salt.

Moreover, nuclear power as an energy source prevented an average of 1.84 million emissions-related deaths in 1971–2009 (P. A. Kharecha and J. E. Hansen Environ. Sci. Technol. 47, 4889–4895; 2013).

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Correspondence to Richard Rhodes.

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Rhodes, R. More nuclear power can speed CO2 cuts. Nature 548, 281 (2017).

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