Is nuclear power the only way to avoid geoengineering?

“I think one can argue that if we were to follow a strong nuclear energy pathway—as well as doing everything else that we can—then we can solve the climate problem without doing geoengineering.” So says Tom Wigley, one of the world’s foremost climate researchers, in the current issue of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, published by SAGE. Refusing to take significant action on climate change now makes it more likely that geoengineering will eventually be needed to address the problem, Wigley explains in an exclusive Bulletin interview.

In the interview, Wigley, a scientist at the University of Adelaide, Australia and at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, explains the two basic geoengineering strategies to reduce climate change: injecting aerosols such as sulfates into the stratosphere to block a portion of the sun’s radiation and thereby cool the Earth, much as volcanic emissions do; and the large-scale removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The aerosol-injection approach is much more likely to be pursued at current stages of technological development.

To avoid the need for geoengineering, which could have enormous unforeseen consequences, the international community should pursue increased deployment of nuclear power plants, which do not emit carbon dioxide, to address the climate crisis, Wigley says. He contends that many of his colleagues in climate science are generally supportive of nuclear engineering and less fearful of it than they are of geoengineering. But his pro-nuclear stance has already sparked a public backlash from climate scientists who oppose nuclear power, geoengineering, or both those methods of dealing with climate change.

“When I talk to people from any walk of life, I do talk about geoengineering,” Wigley says. “But I mostly push nuclear. Because I think one can argue that if we were to follow a strong nuclear energy pathway—as well as doing everything else that we can—then we can solve the climate problem without doing geoengineering.”

The American Association for the Advancement of Science, which named Wigley a fellow in 2003, cited “his major contributions to climate and carbon-cycle modeling and to climate data analysis.” Together with British climate researcher Sarah Raper, he introduced the widely used climate model MAGICC (Model for the Assessment of Greenhouse Gas Induced Climate Change) more than two decades ago and continues to contribute to its development.

In the same issue of the Bulletin, the Center for Investigative Reporting contributes the results of a year-long investigation that has exposed major problems in cleaning up nuclear waste on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay, a former Navy base that is being turned over to civilian control. For decades before it was closed, the Treasure Island Naval Station housed nuclear war academies that used radium, plutonium, and cesium 137 in their training courses. The Navy knew for years that those materials were not always in safe hands. But it did not acknowledge that history publicly, and as a result, workers preparing for civilian redevelopment may have inadvertently spread radioactive material around the island, CIR found.

Tom Wigley: “Why nuclear power may be the only way to avoid geoengineering,” an interview with Tom Wigley, is published in the latest issue of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, along with “Treasure Island cleanup exposes Navy’s mishandling of its nuclear past,” by Matt Smith and Katharine Mieszkowski. Both articles can be freely accessed for a period of three months from publication date here – The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists informs the public about threats to the survival and development of humanity from nuclear weapons, climate change, and emerging technologies in the life sciences. Scientists, engineers, and other experts who had created the atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project established the Bulletin in 1945.

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14 thoughts on “Is nuclear power the only way to avoid geoengineering?”

  1. Nuclear power might be the solution for the energy problem today, but what about tommorow or the day after that? Although nuclear power stations is a effecient way of harnesting energy and it doesn’t contribute much pollution( thanks to geoengineering) than coal or gas power stations, it’s more harmful and dangerous to the environment since nuclear waste takes centuries to decay and there isn’t a safe way to store them. There are already concerns for nuclear waste leakages at dumping sites around the globe. One of these sites are already concerened and are attempting to find an alternative site to store the waste ( Though leakage won’t happen anytime soon, it’s still a problem for future generations. Geoengineering sounds like a good idea since it helps reduces the amount of carbon dioxide in the stratosphere but it changes the climate since aerosol is pumped into the atmosphere. our climate is already an issue due to global warming so I believe it’s not an alternative way to help the environment.
    Researchers and engineers should rather spend their time and resources on developing cheaper yet effecient power plants that uses renewable energy. This will benefit present and future generations.

  2. In my opinion harvesting nuclear energy is a good idea with regards to the increasing population and demand for energy as previously stated. However the waste products of nuclear energy take years to decay and no absolutely safe method of storing them has been proposed. Using nuclear energy may seem like a quick fix to keep up with the demand for energy but leaving the future generations with piles of nuclear waste is definitely not the right way to go. If definite methods of Geo-engineering can be done to solve the climate change like the methods in this article. Using aerosol in the upper atmosphere and more co2 removal procedures. I feel that either of these methods can contribute to solving the climate crisis and in my opinion preferred to nuclear energy.

  3. At the moment geoengineering is too risky, further research must be done to further understand the effects of geoengineering methods. Certainly for now I think nuclear power is the way to go. with nuclear power CO2 emissions will decrease. Nuclear waste must be safely disposed. What about solar and wind power? both solar and wind power are pure no CO2 emissions.

  4. I feel that of the two current technologies that nuclear power would be the safer and more efficient way than geo-engineering because geo-engineering seem like a method of correcting climate change due to emissions and pollution but not the problem of increasing power demands with an increasing global population expecting to reach 8 billion people by the spring of 2024, there will be an enormous pressure placed on already limited resources for energy so if nuclear power can minimize the use of raw material for energy it will reduce the increase in prices of goods since consumption of raw materials such as fossil fuels and coal would be lessened and i feel that geo-engineering is a bit of an unpredictable technology because it messes the already delicate balance in our environment by pumping large amount of aerosol gas into our stratosphere which to me sound neither safe nor efficient.However i do believe that other more safer technologies compared to nuclear power might be available in the near future such as cold fusion or low energy nuclear reactions(LENR) which is a theoretical technology that produces large amount of energy at room temperature and does not produce harmful waste products, i feel that these developing technologies will provide solutions for us to thrive for further generations being in harmony with nature .

  5. Another aspect that hasn’t been discussed is nuclear fusion. It involves fusing two light nuclei to form a single heavier one thereby releasing energy (this is the process that happens in stars). It does not produce radioactive waste or carbon emissions, and would therefore solve the planet’s energy crisis. The problem is that, at the moment, no technology exists that can release a substantial amount of energy from the process. However, many scientists are optimistic about fusion and say that fusion reactors for commercial energy production will exist within the next 10 to 50 years. Let’s hope that it won’t already be too late.

  6. I respect the fact that another way of reducing climate change have been discovered using the geoengeneering, but i think nuclear power is a safe way to reduce climate change because it does not cause much pollution since only energy from the sun is the only energy that is used.

  7. In my opinion, after reading the passage above and the various comments, geoengineering is definitely a possible method to be used to solve the climate problem as the two strategies of geoengineering seem feasible but as mentioned in the above passage, geoengineering could have enormous unforeseen consequences whereas if you take the opposing argument of Tom Wigley into account, nuclear engineering has both positive and negative attributes towards solving the climate problem. Nuclear energy is a sustainable resource on earth and does not emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It may be one of the most dangerous materials on earth but the consequences are known to scientists and can be prevented by managing it correctly and disposing of it with the correct methods. In conclusion I would rather work with the known than the unknown.

  8. Of course there are risks associated with nuclear power. But from what I have read in the previous blog post, these risks are no greater than those associated with other forms of energy production. Nuclear disasters (if one can call them that) actually happen very rarely and if the correct procedures are followed, radioactive waste can be managed safely.
    As Fred Bortz mentioned the possible consequences of geoEng are not fully understood and could pose even greater risks should the something unexpected happen. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.

  9. Well firstly, I think that Geoengineering is a method of combatting climate change and should be researched vastly, and not strayed away from. Nuclear waste produces radioactive material that decays slowly over time, and if not disposed in the correct manner may cause cancer and other problematic diseases to humans. As discussed in the passage above, it is said that Plutonium was used in a training course, and as we know, Plutonium is considered one of the most dangerous materials in the world, if not the most dangerous material in the world. Should not this alone make us think twice about using nuclear power to combat the problems of climate change? Maybe Geoengineering is a short term solution but this may buy us more time to find a more sustainable solution that is long term without the implications of nuclear power.

    • Two reasons people are concerned about geoengineering:

      1. Unintended consequences. We are already geoengineering by adding CO2 in great amounts. The results of other schemes are theoretical, but we need to do the experiment to find out what errors we may be making in those predictions. the problem is that we are experimenting on everyone.

      2. Political. What may be a beneficial consequence for one country or group of people may have negative consequences for others. Who has the right to make the judgment? Who will regulate it? It’s the kind of action that could easily start a war.

      Nuclear power may not be ideal, but at least we already have plausible and manageable plans to handle it. Of course, we still have issues of whether political corruption can lead to poor standards or poor enforcement.

      My earlier blog on this topic generated some very interesting discussion. Have a look.

  10. In my opinion, it sounds as though geoEng will not solve the cause of the problem, but merely try to counteract it and is therefore not a permanent solution. It’s almost like treating the symptoms of a disease rather than curing it. Nuclear power does not contribute to greenhouse emissions ( or at least not that I’m aware of ) and is far more financially viable than other “green” energy sources such as hydropower and solar power. I am a firm believer in nuclear power and think that the only way we will be able to reduce the impact of humans on the planet is to use nuclear power.

  11. This makes me feel so curios!why does it see like geoEng is more dangerous as compared to nuclear power?is it not that people are just nervous of giving it an attempt?i think as much as people are scared of GeoEng they were for nuclear power before it was implemented ,so we should at-least try GeoEng and see if its not going to solve our major problem in a simpler way or not..i would love to see GeoEng’s implementation taking place**

  12. I have to say it is good to hear that there are people working on the the climate change problem as it is surely one of the biggest threats we as man kind will have to face in the future if the issue is left unattended. People are very aware of the issue yet there has not been a huge effort to find solutions or counteract the problem. People only think about the present times and the style of life that they are currently living, not the style of the future generations. Scientists predict the earth’s average temperature will rise one degree every ten years in the near future and that will result in catastrophic future problems. I hope nuclear power will be implemented and receive support from people and scientists all over the world as it may well be one of our only options to save our beloved planet and to secure the existence of humanity for millions of years to come. U14063329

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