The Doomsday Clock measures the likelihood the world will end from nuclear war, global warming or biosecurity problems. So, it might be ironic that many climate scientists think a key to protecting the planet … is nuclear energy. It’s a dichotomy that is getting a hard look from at least one Wisconsin researcher.
Dr. Paul Wilson is a professor in UW-Madison’s Engineering Physics Department. He’s also Chair of the Energy Analysis and Policy Program of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. He believes going green might mean … going nuclear.
"We already know how to make [nuclear energy] much more sustainable," Wilson says. "When we look at what is a sustainable energy source, certainly on the input side, nuclear energy does consume a resource that is not infinite, so there is some finite amount of time that we can do that. And on the output side, there is the question of long-term environmental impact."
But Wilson says there are other issues in the sustainable energy universe that are more pressing concerns than the environmental impact of nuclear power - issues like climate change. He says even if you look only at the probability of environmental damage from climate change as modest, he says, "the extent of the consequences is so vast - eliminating some countries from existence, miles of coastline that may become uninhabitable - that I think if you put those things on a balance, the risk of global climate change is a much larger threat to our way of life than a nuclear power plant is."
Wilson says people who look at the closure of Wisconsin's Kewaunee nuclear power plant this year as a blow in favor of clean energy aren't grasping the full story.
"I think it’s important that people understand that by shutting down Kewaunee, there will be more use of coal to produce electricity in Wisconsin," he says. "And that’s the trade-off that we’re really talking about, environmentally."