“Do you believe in nuclear power or climate change?” This is a question I am frequently asked as an environmental educator, while the debate continues to heat up on climate change choices. With the UN Climate Change Summit in Lima underway this week, the question of what energy source we “believe” in will become ever more audible.

Yet I frequently wonder: must we frame the matter in terms of belief? As a scientist, I am troubled by how environmental narratives are presented in such theological tones. The world is increasingly divided into those who follow the prophetic vision of a chosen scientific sage and those who are stubbornly sceptical.

There’s no doubt that empirically tested and verified scientific observations should be accepted as a base for decision-making, and, as argued by Harvard Professor Naomi Oreskes, there are some opportunistic and misleading merchants of doubt in the realm of climate change. But in the world of science, belief counts for little and even empirically established knowledge is open to further enquiry. In the words of Carl Sagan: “I am not concerned about believing – I am interested in knowing.” This should not be an excuse for policy paralysis but an invitation for continuous introspection by all truth seekers.

The ascendant atom?

The debate about climate change has created a rift within the environmental movement, with some of the more ardent climate change pessimists now embracing nuclear energy as a path to salvation.

So what do we know, definitively, about nuclear power? First, we know it is currently dependent on a supply of uranium ore, which is a finite resource in the earth’s crust. There may be other sources of nuclear fuel, particularly the element thorium, which is perhaps four times more abundant than uranium.  However, we haven’t figured out how to use it efficiently in reactors, because it still needs to be converted into fissionable uranium.

There is still a lot we don’t know about high-level nuclear waste, or the future cost of restoring nuclear-contaminated sites. Most importantly, we don’t know the cost of considering alternative energy sources. With so many unknowns, it is premature for us to see nuclear energy as a cure-all. But it is appropriate to explore nuclear technologies and consider them in the broader trade-offs required to address climate change.

India as a test case

As a case in point, let us first consider India and its options for energy security. The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in Delhi estimates that the Indian government will have to spend over $700 billion on energy infrastructure over the next 25 years. Of this investment, we should consider which energy alternative is the most cost-effective and environmentally desirable. Despite the euphoria over nuclear energy, the reality is that it remains among the most expensive forms of energy per kilowatt hour.

While India and other high-consumption, high-growth countries should keep their options open, nuclear power should be considered with caution. Areas of the world that currently have no electricity can consider alternatives to natural gas. Wind and solar energy potential (with an estimated 300 days per year of full solar exposure in many areas of India) is a significant option.

Furthermore, regional energy transfers should be an important part of the solution. The trans-boundary pipeline projects that India has been considering could provide low-cost and high-efficiency energy delivery. Despite political pressure to bypass Pakistan, the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline deal has been noted – even by prominent Indian commentators such as Sandeep Dixshit – as the most viable option. Last week in Kathmandu, the agreement in principle to establish a regional energy plan with a possible grid network across South Asia, is a landmark achievement that should be emulated in other regions.

Cost comparisons and technology

The economics of nuclear power plant calculations are highly complex, because unlike for coal and gas, there is a large array of service and maintenance costs: transport, processing, delivery, storage and disposal, for instance. In a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the all-inclusive cost for a nuclear power plant operating over 40 years was calculated at 8.4 cents per kilowatt in 2009, which was 20% more than the cost for natural gas (at prices that were peaking at the time). Current prices are much lower, which means nuclear is now even less competitive on cost terms.

By playing around with discount rates, the nuclear industry can sometimes come up with ostensibly cost-effective comparisons with other fuels, but there is little doubt that the construction cost of a nuclear power plant is inordinately higher than any other source per unit of energy delivery. For example, estimates from the US Energy Information Agency in 2013 note that a natural gas-powered modern plant with carbon capture and storage to mitigate climate change affects cost around $2,095 per kw, in comparison with a modern nuclear plant, which affects $5,530.

For fossil-fuel energy, the cost estimates need to include the broader climate-change economic-impact calculations, as well as costs of adaptation to give a more comprehensive estimate of trade-offs. It may well be that with such analytics, fossil fuels with mitigation technologies come forth as a viable part of the solution as well, though we can’t be sanguine about their ascendancy.

All these cost estimates are highly dynamic, and subject to considerable change by technology. Indeed, we should strive to learn more about harnessing the power of the atom from ores and nuclear wastes more cost effectively.  The same should be true of investing in myriad other forms of energy research, from less costly and material-intensive solar, wind, geothermal and tidal, and innovative new forms of hydroelectric.

At the end of the day, when it comes to climate change, our energy policy decisions must be determined by deliberative science and not by the tempting spectre of belief.

More on nuclear power
Can nuclear energy fuel our future?
Why we should worry about nuclear security
Are fossil fuels a thing of the past?

Author: Saleem H Ali is Professor and Director at the Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining at the University of Queensland, Australia and Adjunct Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Vermont. He is also a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Image: A cooling tower of the nuclear power plant Leibstadt near the northern Swiss town of Leibstadt November 18, 2014. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann