Pinhead Town Talk About Viability of Nuclear Power
Aug 19, 2007 | 386 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
TELLURIDE, Aug. 20, 3:13 p.m. - During the heated Aug. 7 Pinhead Town Talk (“Is it Science? Global Warming, Intelligent Design, the Anthropic Principle and Einstein’s Moon”), speaker Dr. Michael Kellman drew a charged response from climate-change scientist, University of Arizona Professor and part-time local, Dr. Jonathan Overpeck, in a standing room audience of 120 people at the Conference Center.

Overpeck challenged Kellman’s questioning of climate-change science by stating that there was 100 percent certainty among his colleagues that climate change is caused by human activity. Overpeck repeatedly pressed Kellman to answer this question: “Why do respected scientists feel compelled to speak publicly on subjects outside their expertise, carrying with them the authority of science?” When Kellman did not take the bait, Overpeck nearly walked out.

Clearly, the topic of climate change packs an emotional charge, especially for those like Overpeck working passionately to stem what they see as the imminent demise of our cherished planet.

This week’s Pinhead Town Talk, the final presentation of the 2007 season, may be as controversial as Kellman’s. In the course of delivering his speech, “Climate Change and Nuclear Power: Choosing a Course Beyond Emotion,” Dr. R. Stephen Berry, James Franck Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at University of Chicago and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, is likely to encounter criticism of his position on nuclear power.

Berry, who raises no challenges to predictions of global warming, is very public about his pro-stance on nuclear energy. His debate with Rocky Mountain Institute chairman and chief scientist Amory Lovins can be read online at The Bulletin Online: Global Security News & Analysis discussion group at Berry is a committee member on the Review of the Department of Energy’s Nuclear Energy Research and Development project and has worked on energy-efficiency issues since 1969. He believes nuclear energy is a necessary part of the market basket – an immediately available, abundant source of energy that will contribute minimal CO2 emissions into our already carbon-rich environment.

But nuclear power is as emotionally charged a topic as climate change. Accidents at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986 still resonate in the minds of the public. Problems with accidents at nuclear power plants, safe waste disposal and the potential for proliferation of nuclear weapons are still considered too dangerous a price to pay by many, like Amory Lovins, who advocates the use of renewable resources such as wind and solar without resorting to nuclear power. Berry sees this as idealistic.

Recent data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, for example, indicate that a complete melting of sea ice of the Arctic Circle could occur by 2030, rather than 2070, as previously predicted, a change that has left scientists stunned. “We're living in a dangerously dynamic situation and must pursue all the plausible paths we know,” Berry wrote recently. “Abandoning nuclear power would be as foolish as halting efforts toward energy efficiency. While no energy source is risk-free, nuclear power probably represents the safest electricity source in overall costs of human life – and also the most reliable. Nuclear reactors now perform at about 90 percent of their theoretical limits; 20 years ago, it was roughly 60 percent.”

Despite the heightened efficiency of nuclear power, and alarming new data on the rapidity of climate change, the locating of new sites for nuclear power plants may face a mostly cultural hurdle, with many American communities taking the “not in my backyard” stance.

Berry suggests a to-do list be developed. “We need to develop more efficient energy,” he says, “and develop renewable energies such as wind power. Biofuels are still controversial. Solar is not yet a technologically, economically viable solution. Nuclear is available now and the potential supply of this fuel is enormous. We have some uranium, but lots of thorium.

Most scientists agree that alternative power sources – from biofuel to solar to wind power – cannot become viable quickly enough to solve the fast-mounting climate change, which is predominantly manmade.

“The emotional reaction to resist nuclear power is an interesting analogue to the emotional reaction to deny the likelihood of human-generated climate change,” Berry wrote. “The two positions have remarkable similarities, at opposite ends of a common scale. Let's hope there's enough rationality for us to make our way in a healthy, sustainable manner between those emotional extremes.”

Come join the fiery conversation Tuesday night at the Conference Center at 6:00 p.m. For more information call Nana Naisbitt at 970/708-0004 or visit  or email

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