Nuclear power and the future of clean energy

  • The Green New Deal has been criticized for neglecting nuclear power, a reliable and scalable source of carbon-free energy.
  • Historically, opposition to nuclear power had nothing to do with concerns about carbon emissions; environmental groups are often wary of relying on it to reduce emissions.
  • Nuclear has the support of the Trump administration, which has promised a “complete review” of the industry.

The rollout of the Green New Deal, a sweeping proposal introduced by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) articulating a progressive environmental policy agenda, stumbled out of the gate earlier this month when the office of Ocasio-Cortez released a “frequently asked questions” fact sheet.

Among the controversial and derided assertions of this fact sheet, which was soon dismissed by Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff as a “bad copy,” one of the most perplexing was that it did “not include creating new nuclear plants” as part of its goal to achieve “net-zero greenhouse gas emissions” by the end of the next decade. Instead, it argued that building a new economy on renewables would make “new fossil fuel infrastructure or nuclear plants unnecessary.”

Given the fact that nuclear power is by far the most scalable zero-emission energy source currently available, many experts were quick to question whether the Green New Deal took seriously its own goal of reducing carbon emissions. Instead, they argue, the use of nuclear power will likely be a critical component of a cleaner energy future — and one that should absolutely be on the table.

Clean energy: The benefits of nuclear

Even though most of the nuclear power plants currently in use in the U.S. are more than 30 years old, they are the only energy source that has made any sort of “green new deal” feasible, Michael Shellenberger, President of Environmental Progress, wrote in Forbes earlier this month. In his one and a half decades of experience advocating for working with renewables, Shellenber said he has discovered two things:

“First, no nation has decarbonized its electricity supply with solar and wind. Second, the only successful decarbonization efforts were achieved with nuclear.”

As examples of what such an effort could look like, he points to France and Sweden, which generate a respective 88 percent and 95 percent of their electricity from carbon-free sources — primarily nuclear and hydroelectric power.

In another op-ed for Forbes the same week, Shellenberger went so far as to argue that eschewing nuclear in favor of wind and solar will lead to an increase in emissions. Using Vermont as a case study, he found that relying heavily on wind and solar to reduce emissions while phasing out the state’s lone nuclear plant, Vermont Yankee, led to the state’s emissions rising by 16.3 percent from 1990 to 2015 — more than twice the rate that national emissions rose.

“Had Vermont’s utilities supplied its customers with power from Vermont Yankee instead of from out-of-state fossil electricity, nearly half of the state’s increase in emissions since 1990 could have been avoided,” Shellenberger wrote.

There’s no question that renewable energy technology is advancing to make sources like solar and wind more effective, but even as recently as 2017, traditional nuclear power generated more electricity in the U.S. than all renewable sources combined, including hydropower. This has led many energy experts, in the name of realism, to hold up nuclear power as a critical component of any plan to reduce carbon emissions. As author and journalist Richard Rhodes pointed out in a recent article for the New York Times, it takes time for societies to embrace new energy sources. Infrastructure has to catch up and people have to adapt.

“If one was to describe a new power-generating technology with almost no pollution, practically limitless fuel supplies, reliable operations, scalable, and statistically far safer than existing alternatives, it would understandably sound like a miracle,” wrote Admiral James O. Ellis Jr. and George P. Schultz in a 2017 essay for the Hoover Institution. “It is far too early to take nuclear off the table.”

Given certain political realities, such as the fact that a significant block of lawmakers are unlikely to embrace an energy plan that will lead to more expensive and less reliable power grids, nuclear is especially appealing.

“Any zero-emissions electricity standard that could pass Congress has to include nuclear and carbon capture, along with wind and solar,” Paul Bledsoe, a former climate change adviser to President Bill Clinton, told the Washington Examiner.

Historical context

Historically, opposition to nuclear power had nothing to do with concerns about carbon emissions one way or the other, Rhodes noted. This is why, he said, “arguments for nuclear’s environmental advantages often fall on deaf ears.”

“The movement originated out of a panic among European and American intellectuals in the 1950s and ’60s about overpopulation,” Rhodes wrote. “In the end, the green revolution and the demographic transition that followed third-world economic development met food needs and limited population growth… But by then nuclear power was anathema to the Democratic Party and American and European Greens, a tragic misalignment of liberal values.”

Will politics finally catch up with necessity in the movement to forestall climate change? If the errantly-released fact sheet is anything to judge by, the Green New Deal at most includes nuclear power only grudgingly. Public opinion on the matter appears to be fickle and unclear, dependent on Americans’ perception of energy needs and safety concerns when asked about nuclear power. That said, some left-leaning groups like the think tank Third Way (which tends to advocate for more pragmatic policies) as well as the environmental think tank the Breakthrough Institute support nuclear as part of a long-term environmental strategy.

Critics of nuclear power contend it is too risky and complicated to supply America’s energy needs. As Avery Thompson pointed out in a recent article for Popular Mechanics, only one nuclear power plant has been built in America in the past two decades, and only one is under construction. Both have been badly hampered by delays and cost overruns. On top of this, critics cite the costs of toxic waste disposal for existing plants and the danger of a disaster like Chernobyl of Fukushima.

A boost from the Trump administration

Whatever bad rap nuclear power may have in the views of environmental activists and the American public, it has the support of President Donald Trump’s administration. Speaking to a room of industry executives at the Department of Energy (DOE) headquarters in the summer of 2017, the president said he wanted to “revive and expand our nuclear energy sector — which I’m so happy about — which produces clean, renewable and emissions-free energy.”

While much of the Trump administration’s efforts to revive nuclear have been “shrouded in mystery,” according to a January 15 report from E&E News, the president has signed two key pieces of legislation over the past six months upholding nuclear as a key component of his energy agenda.

In September Trump signed the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act (NEICA). Passed in Congress with bipartisan support, the NEICA aims to eliminate some of the financial and technological barriers that stand in the way of nuclear innovation, thereby speeding the development of more advanced nuclear reactors.

“There are some truly transformative advanced nuclear technologies being developed in America right now, and this bill just reinforces this administration’s continued efforts to revitalize the nuclear industry,” Ed McGinnis, principal deputy assistant secretary for the Office of Nuclear Energy, said in a statement.

Trump signed the second bill, the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act, during the partial government shutdown in January. The bill calls on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to establish “a technology-inclusive, regulatory framework for optional use by commercial advanced nuclear reactor applicants for new reactor license applications” by 2028. The goal here is to pave the way for new reactors emerging from labs and startups that use significantly different technology than the light water reactors that have dominated the industry for the last 50 years.

“It’s really recognizing that a lot of our policies around nuclear and institutions around nuclear are pretty outdated,” said Jessica Lovering, who researches nuclear technology and policy as director of energy at the Breakthrough Institute.

The two bills, which are the product of a “complete review” of the nuclear industry promised by Trump, have made nuclear power supporters optimistic heading into the second half of the president’s term.

“It’s ongoing, it’s active, it’s tactical and focused on driving the interagency process through presidential memorandum decisions,” David Blee, executive director of the U.S. Nuclear Industry Council, told E&E News of the administration’s nuclear review. “It’s been effective in things coming out of the DOE, and there’s a lot work in progress for 2019.”

Image Credit: Photo by Frédéric Paulussen on Unsplash

Share this article on

Read more