Effect of the Kyoto Protocol

A global problem of the highest order has captured public interest and catapulted nuclear power (a worldwide pariah following the accidents at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986) to the first rank of electricity generation sources. Scientific evidence implicates combustion gases emitted by fossil fuel power plants in global warming (the "greenhouse" effect). This warming due to increased carbon in the atmosphere cannot be corrected by any known technology. Effects of higher surface and ocean temperatures endanger the well-being of billions of people who live in already marginal tropical climates or in coastal areas that will be submerged as polar ice melts. Further, it threatens species, such as cold water fish, that provide most of the protein consumed by certain populations.

The Kyoto Protocol [38], signed by President Clinton but never ratified (and later rescinded by the Bush administration) is a plan to reduce fossil fuel emissions to limit global warming as understood with near universal agreement by scientists and researchers worldwide. Kyoto has resulted in four interlocking responses, even in the U.S. Cities, states, and nations are modifying or creating policies to encourage the development of renewable energy sources, favoring natural gas over coal in new fossil fuel plants, revisiting energy conservation to limit growth of fossil fuel consumption, and commissioning additional nuclear power plants as alternatives for the non-intermittent, high-density energy available from fossil fuel combustion. Emissions trading is a market response that also offers international potential.

Efforts to replace fossil fuels by sources considered renewable, mainly hydroelectric, wind, and solar, have not been as successful as hoped. Despite substantial growth in the total amount of renewable energy, there have been similarly large increases in fossil fuel consumption [39].

Production of electricity from nuclear power avoids emission of carbon-based greenhouse gases. For instance, electric generation from coal produced 83% of the industry's CO2 emissions from 1990 to 2004 [40]. Contributions from natural gas rose from 10% to 13% over the same period, reflecting the increased preference for natural gas plants. From 1980 through the mid-1990's, when decline flattened, the use of nuclear power constituted the primary reason for a decline in carbon intensity in the U.S. energy supply [40].

When reduction of greenhouse gas emissions becomes a monolithic policy goal, and the substitution of nuclear energy products becomes a featured solution, the collateral effect of increasing nuclear waste is in the main ignored in public policy discussions. Similarly unmeasured are externalities from other production alternatives, such as the collateral effects of "mining" water to grow corn to produce methanol as a substitute for fossil fuel. The complexity of energy use, rich with geo-political interests, business and government subsidies, and environmental concerns, becomes a hurdle to reasoned public deliberation.

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