Sunday night is a crowded spot on the television calendar (Mad Men & Game of Thrones), which means that in my house, the re-boot of Cosmos hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson goes straight to my DVR. When I first heard that the show was being resurrected by Fox's Seth MacFarlane, I immediately began looking forward to the premiere. I'm more than old enough to remember watching the original PBS series hosted by Carl Sagan. It was a huge hit, challenging the Big 3 networks in the ratings on the night it premiered in September 1980. For a kid who had grown up fascinated by space exploration, it was a real treat.
Let's get back to 2014. I've been plowing through each episode a couple of days after it originally aired and was really enjoying it (I've been a fan of the cosmic calendar from the start). Then I watched Episode 9, "The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth." That night, Dr. Tyson touched upon the topic of climate change* (emphasis mine):
We just can't seem to break our addiction to the kinds of fuel that will bring back a climate last seen by the dinosaurs, a climate that will drown our coastal cities and wreak havoc on the environment and our ability to feed ourselves. All the while, the glorious sun pours immaculate free energy down upon us, more than we will ever need.I'm not the only person who knows that renewables like solar energy, while they have a role to play on the electric grid, can't provide all of the electricity we need, never mind all of the energy we want.
That's not just a theory. We have real world experience in Germany where a push to phase out nuclear energy and replace it with renewables has led to a resurgence in the use of coal and an increase in CO2 emissions. In the U.S., an "all-of-the-above" energy strategy that includes nuclear isn't just a buzzword, it's a matter of national policy, one that was reinforced last week when the U.S. Environmental Protection introduced new regulations that explicitly referenced using nuclear energy as a tool to constrain CO2 emissions while providing reliable baseload power.
Still, I resisted the urge to tweet or blog about that aside in order to keep an open mind about what might come next. Then, just a few days after it aired, I watched Episode 12, "The World Set Free," where Dr. Tyson laid out the case for climate change science.
There were some wonderfully compelling stories from the past about the history of solar technology, but when it came time to propose real-world solutions to keep the lights on while constraining CO2 emissions, the only examples that were provided were wind and solar. Which was when Dr. Tyson said the following (again, emphasis mine):
There's another inexhaustible source of clean energy for the world. The winds themselves are solar powered, because our star drives the winds and the waves. Unlike solar collectors, wind farms take up very little land, and none at all, if offshore, where the winds are strongest.Not according to the sources I consult, which includes the the UK Department of Energy & Climate Change. In October 2013, they published this helpful infographic detailing just how much space would be required for wind and solar farms to provide the same amount of electricity as the proposed 3,200 MWe Hinkley Point C nuclear power station. Let's just say it's not even close.
This isn't the first time we've seen the use of nuclear energy omitted from the options we need in order to reduce atmospheric carbon while providing affordable electricity. The good news is, as we saw in the film "Pandora's Promise," there are a number of environmentalists who have come around when it comes to supporting nuclear energy. Here's hoping Dr. Tyson gives it a viewing and joins other environmentalists like James Hansen, Stewart Brand and Mike Shellenberger (among others) in making sure nuclear energy has a role to play in meeting our environmental challenges.
UPDATE: Reddit user Greg Barton decided to continue the conversation there. Please stop by.
* NEI stated its position on climate change in a paper in October 2007.