The cooling towers of Three Mile Island’s Unit 1 Nuclear Power Plant pour steam into the sky in Middletown, Pennsylvania, Tuesday, March 17, 2009. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

A horrifying account written from America’s largest coal mine in Wyoming and a leaked report, published by The New York Times, of the upcoming report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ought to convince some, at least, that nuclear energy should be a major part of the solution to the world’s greatest crisis.

The vast coal mine, which produces 10 percent of the coal that the United States burns, coughs up 108 million tons every year:

Scott Durgin, who manages the mine for Peabody Energy, tries hard to communicate its enormous scale.

In a typical day, Mr. Durgin tells me, 21 trains depart the mine, pulling 135 cars each. Each car bears 120 tons of coal. At this pace, he says, there is more than 20 years’ worth of coal ready to mine under my feet.

That puts an exclamation point on the Times’ report on the IPCC report, scheduled for release next month. The report, which is issued roughly at five-year intervals, raises from 90 to 95 percent the certainty that human activity is responsible for observed rises in world temperatures. Says the report:

“It is extremely likely that human influence on climate caused more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010. There is high confidence that this has warmed the ocean, melted snow and ice, raised global mean sea level and changed some climate extremes in the second half of the 20th century.”

Politico, reporting on the leaked IPCC report—which was first reported by Reuters—notes the significance of the change in certainty:

An Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report due out next month will say there’s at least a 95 percent chance that human activities (mostly burning fossil fuels) have been the main cause of global warming since the 1950s, according to a draft version of the report seen by Reuters. “That is up from at least 90 percent in the last report in 2007, 66 percent in 2001, and just over 50 in 1995, steadily squeezing out the arguments by a small minority of scientists that natural variations in the climate might be to blame. That shifts the debate onto the extent of temperature rises and the likely impacts, from manageable to catastrophic. Governments have agreed to work out an international deal by the end of 2015 to rein in rising emissions.”

And the Times summarizes the range of outcomes like this, citing the IPCC draft report:

Regarding the likely rise in sea level over the coming century, the new report lays out several possibilities. In the most optimistic, the world’s governments would prove far more successful at getting emissions under control than they have been in the recent past, helping to limit the total warming.

In that circumstance, sea level could be expected to rise as little as 10 inches by the end of the century, the report found. That is a bit more than the eight-inch increase in the 20th century, which proved manageable even though it caused severe erosion along the world’s shorelines.

At the other extreme, the report considers a chain of events in which emissions continue to increase at a swift pace. Under those conditions, sea level could be expected to rise at least 21 inches by 2100 and might increase a bit more than three feet, the draft report said.

Eduardo Porter, in his account written from the Wyoming mine, strongly advocates a boost for nuclear energy, making the argument that solar and wind energy can’t supply enough power to allow nations to sharply reduce coal, oil and natural gas. That’s a view that has been embraced by increasing numbers of environmentalists, especially younger ones, he notes, citing the controversial film Pandora’s Promise:

Robert Stone, a documentary filmmaker who directed “Pandora’s Promise,” about the environmental case for nuclear power, argues that atomic energy’s time is coming. Younger environmentalists don’t associate nuclear power with Chernobyl and the cold war. Studies have revealed it to be safer than other fuels.

In the movie, Michael Shellenberger, an environmental activist whom Time magazine once named a Hero of the Environment, argues that beliefs that solar and wind power can displace fossil fuels amount to “hallucinatory delusions.”

Still, the hurdles are substantial. There are fewer nuclear generators in the United States than in 1987. Just maintaining nuclear energy’s share of 19 percent of the nation’s electricity generation will require adding several dozen new ones. Each will take some 10 years and $5 billion to construct. If nuclear power is to play a leading role combating climate change, it should start now.

In an editorial today, the Times praises a recent court decision aimed at compelling the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to move ahead with studies of the long-running—and long-stalled—Yucca Mountain nuclear waste depository in Nevada. Concludes the editorial:

After spending decades and billions of dollars in studying Yucca, Congress ought to appropriate enough new funds to complete the overall licensing evaluation to determine whether or not Yucca would make an acceptable repository. Meanwhile, as a step in that process, we urge the commission not to appeal the court decision but instead use its remaining money to publish an unredacted safety evaluation. The information would be useful because underground burial, if not at Yucca then elsewhere, remains the preferred option for permanent disposal.

Liberals and the left are frequently critical of Republicans and the right for the manifest hostility to science, including of course their stubborn refusal to recognize the reality of human-caused global warming (not to mention, say, their denial of evolution). In the case of nuclear power, however, the left and many environmentalists have too often allowed themselves to be caught up in an almost superstitious fear of nuclear energy. Vast problems accrue to nuclear energy, of course, as with all technologies. But they can be solved.

Mark Hertsgaard and Terry Tempest Williams debate Pandora’s Promise ,its provocative claims—and the facts it leaves out.