Nuclear energy, problem solving, and the time on the clock.

I’m going to start this article off with a bit of a personal touch. I had a mentor a few years back and he gave me some very good advice that has shaped a lot of the outlook I have on what is going on in the world. One of his favourite lines is “The problems of today cannot be solved with the solutions of yesterday, and the problems of tomorrow cannot be solved with the solutions of today.”

For those of you a bit more deeply embedded into internet culture you might be more familiar with this way of putting it:

You are full of more wisdom than anyone ever expected Dave.

I can imagine that most people right now are thinking that this is where I start saying that only nuclear is the solution to today’s problems such as Climate Change. But I love subverting expectations so here’s where I get to say that I don’t think that it is. Neither is solar, wind, geothermal, and especially not combined cycle gas or “clean coal”. And the reason I think this is because I can’t convince myself that Climate Change is the problem, it’s simply one of the symptoms. The scale of the impact of climate change is so large it is almost impossible to comprehend, and whenever someone thinks that the whole breadth of it has been explored, new components crop up. Rising ocean levels, Methane deposits melting, northern bogs losing their ability to sink carbon, ocean acidification, and probably several more that haven’t reached mainstream knowledge yet.

But that’s just the environmental side of things, what about the social aspect? A population struggling to all rise to 1st world levels of stability, displaced peoples trying to find a place where they can feel safe and not go to bed hungry. 1st world countries where people are constantly fearful of their economic security, and are being told to turn on their fellow man and neglect their basic basic human decency because they are different.

….

So of course I’m not going to say that nuclear power could solve all of that. It would be monumentally, stupendously, Insultingly arrogant of me to say that. And the same goes for every other clean energy technology out there. If anyone is offering you a silver bullet, saying that “If we just had more of this all our problems would go away” they are insulting you and everyone else that they think will believe them. “Cut back your air travel and switch to a plant based diet and things will get better” is something I’m sure basically everyone has heard by now. What you might not know is that air travel is only 2% of global carbon emissions, so even if Everyone stopped flying for leisure we would have made less than a 2% difference in global emissions. And switching to a plant based diet is even Less carbon savings per person than Reducing air travel let alone stopping it.

I hate this chart, because it is so successful at making people think that individual changes can make a substantial difference, but fails so completely at showcasing what the actual scale of the changes that need to happen are. Without complete data, no one can make a correct answer.

But there is one thing that nuclear, solar, geothermal, even wind energy can give us. And it is the most precious commodity in the world right now. Time. Every tiny scrap of energy that we can harness that doesn’t compound our problems, every joule that we can use to make things better, every erg, every calorie, every bead of sweat on a forehead is the currency that we can use to buy ourselves Time to fix our problems.

But we can’t just ignore the problems and symptoms that are in front of us right now because we have no time left to spend on waiting for a solution. We squandered that 40 years ago when we could have decarbonized our electrical grid with nuclear and other clean technologies. That would have given us the time to work on decarbonizing the rest of our industry and then some. Now we have to do all those things but without any buffer and With the added problem of having to start pulling CO2 out of the air instead of simply preventing it from getting there in the first place. We gave up on the ounce of prevention because we didn’t like the taste, so now we have to go for our pound of cure and it’s coming in the biggest needle the doctors can find.

But there are those who don’t want us to have more time. People who say that we have 10 years, 12 years to completely change Everything to their way of doing things because they have the answers. It’s as insulting as proclaiming a silver bullet. Deadlines to make us panic, start tossing anything we might think is extraneous out the window in a madcap rush to follow along with what we are told is the way forward. I’m never trusting of those who give ultimatums. It’s a brutish way to try and enforce the idea that there are no other options than what is laid out in front of the recipient.

But I’ve made it clear before that I support nuclear energy precisely because it is the technology that opens up the Most options. And the entire point of trying to buy more Time is so that we can explore all the options that might be solutions in order to find the ones that work. Not simply to the symptoms of our fundamental problem as a civilization and species, such as climate change or social regression, but to dig down into ourselves and find the roots that feed the problem or problems at the heart of things. You can probably name a few problems yourself that are important to you, but it’s hard to justify pursuing solutions to them when you are worried about the world being smothered in the long term and how to pay for your food and rent in the short term.

We know there are problems to fix, so we need to give ourselves the time to fix them. We won’t be able to solve things by rushing into things without building a safety buffer for ourselves. We can reduce emissions, we can reduce the concentrations of CO2, we can cool the oceans, we can treat all the symptoms. But all that is is simply buying Time for us to figure out what the actual problem is and hopefully how to fix that. Because we need to have enough time for there to Be a tomorrow if we are to fix tomorrow’s problems after we fix today’s problems.

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