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Opinion To solve the carbon crisis, we need to talk nuclear power

A new cooling tower for a nuclear power plant reactor that's under construction stands near the two operating reactors at Plant Vogtle in Waynesboro, Ga., on June 13, 2014. (John Bazemore/AP)
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Most of us think of electricity only when something goes wrong. A storm knocks the power out, or there’s a short in the wiring, or the monthly bill is unexpectedly high. Normally, we toggle on, the juice flows, and we think nothing of it.

The era of blissful unconcern may be ending. Ford Motor Co.’s decision to push its whole pile of chips into a bet on electric vehicles illustrates the larger gamble the world is placing on a green future with electricity powering nearly everything.

On the demand side, uses unimagined a few decades ago now suck enough juice to power a midsize nation. A project at the University of Cambridge calculates that cryptocurrency mining — which pits supercomputers in races to solve horribly complex math equations — consumes more electricity than all of Denmark. Server farms to store our rapidly accumulating data require even more. Meanwhile, billions of humans in developing countries aspire to have their lives electrified.

According to the International Energy Agency, rising overall demand for electricity is outstripping the world’s efforts to improve efficiency and boost renewables. As a result, carbon emissions from generating electricity are projected to reach a record high next year after flattening and ticking slightly downward in recent years.

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A lot could be written about demand. How much is too much for the production of shadow money and the preservation of Instagram pics? But the imperatives of climate change and development will inevitably require greater supplies of electricity. It is increasingly clear that nuclear power plants must play a consequential role.

Nuclear power is, in many ways, the most promising source of zero-carbon electricity. Unlike solar, wind and water power, electricity from nuclear plants is predictable; generators run when the sun is not shining, the wind is not blowing and water levels are low. Nevertheless, the industry has a dicey reputation, and there are fewer commercial reactors in operation today in the United States than a generation ago. This year could see three commercial reactors decommissioned in the United States — with plans to shut down about 20 more in coming years.

The problem is a misunderstanding of risks. Humans are constantly exposed to radiation — from the sun, from the cosmos, from the very ground we walk on. Even the most fearsome and publicized nuclear reactor accidents have added relatively little to background levels.

After an earthquake and tsunami wiped out the nuclear plant at Fukushima, Japan, in 2011, scientists concluded that the trauma of a mass evacuation had caused greater health effects than the radiation release. Within months of the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown, in the former Soviet Union, approximately 30 operators and firefighters on-site died of acute radiation syndrome, but investigators nearly two decades later found “no scientific evidence of increases in overall cancer incidence or mortality or in non-malignant disorders that could be related to radiation exposure.” The alarming near-meltdown at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island plant in 1979 ultimately exposed neighbors to approximately one-sixth the radiation dose they would receive from having a single X-ray.

Of greater concern are the health risks to uranium miners of extended exposure to natural radiation. Their safety should be protected as the industry advances. But the general fear that has stymied nuclear power over the past generation is unreasonable.

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is one of a growing cadre of investors who believe that cheaper, smaller reactors must play a significant part in the post-carbon energy mix. “We need more nuclear power to zero out emissions in America and to prevent a climate disaster,” he told an industry group recently. His company TerraPower has announced plans to build a next-generation nuclear reactor at the site of a former coal-fired power plant in Wyoming. The goal is to prove that nuclear power can be added to the grid at a competitive price and on a reasonable timeline.

I’m an optimistic supporter of wind power, solar power, geothermal power and other renewable energy sources. I’m also a realistic student of the various impediments to the growth of these sources. I agree with Gates that the surest path to net-zero carbon emissions is one that maximizes every non-carbon energy source, including nuclear power.

The model to have in mind is not the hulking plants at Chernobyl or Three Mile Island but the small, imminently reliable reactors that have powered the United States’ submarines and aircraft carriers across more than 134 million miles in 50-plus accident-free years of cruising. Nothing more clearly showcases the potential for safe, reliable nuclear power than these 83 floating demonstration projects, in which healthy sailors live in proximity to tireless fission power plants.

Carbon emissions and other greenhouse gases are the environmental challenge of our age. Nuclear power is one tool for ridding ourselves of them — while keeping the lights on.