Posted by Suzanna Hinson

In the years of the space race, America’s best minds came together to achieve the monumental step of getting man to the moon. Today, a group of the UK’s most famous scientists, economists and businessmen is calling for a new Global Apollo programme to combat climate change. The aim is to bring together the same great ingenuity, and large funds, but this time to achieve the even more monumental step of getting to a sustainable society.

The main challenge of the day has moved on. Instead of a cold war, the greatest threat we face is a warming world. The programme’s introduction states:

“Climate change threatens us with increased risk of drought, flood and tempest, leading to mass migration and conflict. These dangers can be limited if the rise in temperature is less than 2˚C above the pre-industrial level. […] But, even if every promise is carried out, carbon-dioxide emissions will continue to rise. By 2035 the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will exceed the critical level for a 2˚C rise in temperature and on current policies the temperature will eventually reach 4˚C above the pre-industrial level. We must take action to prevent this, by radically cutting the world’s output of carbon dioxide. We must reduce the use of energy and we must make the energy we use clean.”

The programme seeks to revolutionise the energy sector by investing in research, development and demonstration of innovative technologies in order to make the cost of clean energy lower than the cost of polluting fossil fuels. The authors of the proposal (namely David King, John Browne, Richard Layard, Gus O’Donnell, Martin Rees, Nicholas Stern and Adair Turner) argue that clean energy already has huge social and environmental benefits over fossil fuels, but that it needs investment and innovation to become as cheap or cheaper, which would allow clean energy to “win all the battles”.

The authors’ “clean energy future” is built on three pillars of technology: renewables, nuclear power and carbon capture and storage (CCS). Thus far, the aims of the Global Apollo Programme and the Alvin Weinberg Foundation are very much on the same page. However, the Apollo Programme proposers believe that nuclear and CCS already have sufficient funding, so call for more funding solely for renewables. Here we disagree.

The report correctly says that nuclear fusion and conventional nuclear power are well funded, with schemes such as the G4 international programme for efficient on-site enrichment of uranium for nuclear fission and the International Thermonuclear Energy Reactor (ITER) programme for nuclear fusion which has enjoyed over £13 billion of funding. However these big figures and the enduring perception that expensive nuclear is overfunded, dangerously hide a huge gap in funding for research and development of what should be the nuclear of the future: advanced nuclear reactors.

At the time of the space race and the original Apollo Program, huge advances were being made in nuclear power. In fact it was the time when Alvin Weinberg himself did some of his best work, on advanced nuclear reactors. This contrasts hugely with the lack of progress today. It is a sad irony that the new Apollo program is not promoting further nuclear investment as was occurring at the time of the original.

AWF and the Apollo programme have a common cause. As supporters of all clean energy, AWF are very much in favour of further investment in renewables R&D. But further investment in advanced nuclear R&D is also desperately needed.

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