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Do We Need Nuclear Power to Solve Climate Change?

Should policymakers include supports for nuclear energy in their efforts to combat climate change?

by Countable | Updated on 3.14.19

After the world’s leading climate scientists announced that the world has about a dozen years left to rein in greenhouse gas emissions enough to prevent catastrophic climate change fallout, a debate currently rages as to whether or not nuclear power should be a part of the solution.

In announcing this year’s Green New Deal resolution, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) released a fact sheet that was inconsistent with the actual legislative text of the resolution. Among other things, the fact sheet said the Green New Deal plan would “transition off of nuclear and all fossil fuels as soon as possible.”

But can we achieve the necessary greenhouse gas emissions without nuclear energy? That seems to depend on whom you ask.

Low emissions

Nuclear energy emits no greenhouse gas emissions once a plant is operational. While some detractors say this assertion ignores the emissions associated with mining and processing uranium, building nuclear power stations and managing nuclear waste, nuclear power plants still emit far less per unit of produced energy than fossil fuels, even when those factors are taken into account.

That being said, nuclear power still supplies a very small amount of U.S. energy. According to our partners at USAFacts, a non-partisan, not-for-profit civic initiative aimed at making government data accessible and understandable, nuclear energy provided just 8.6 percent of U.S. power consumption in 2017.

U.S. Energy Consumption (British Thermal Units) by Type

Source: USAFacts

Economic Viability

Late last year, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), long respected as the country’s leading nuclear watchdog group, published a report proposing that the U.S. single out “safe” but financially ailing nuclear plants and subsidize their operations, so that they might remain open.

That raises one of the big points of debate: nuclear power plants are crazy expensive, and they almost always overrun their budgets by significant margins. A recent Popular Mechanics article asserted:

“It’s just too damn hard and expensive to build new nuclear capacity in 21st century America.”

For instance, the expansion of Southern Company’s Vogtle plant — which is currently the only nuclear power generator under construction in the U.S. — is years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. Moreover, utility rate payers will have no choice but to pay the bulk of the extra cost.

The Watts Bar 2 nuclear plant, which started producing power in 2016, took 37 years to build and cost $4.7 billion — well more than its budgeted $2.5 billion.

As a counterpoint, some experts note that 70 to 80 percent of a nuclear plant’s costs are up front, whereas solar and wind cost estimates tend to omit the high cost of transmission lines or batteries that are necessary to make renewable energy reliable and accessible.

There may also be alternative nuclear technologies that don’t present the same cost challenges. For instance, the Idaho National Laboratory is working on small modular reactors and light water reactors that appear to be more nimble and affordable than their legacy peers.

Safety

One of the big concerns about nuclear power, of course, is its safety. You could have spent your whole life under a rock and still cringe at the mention of Chernobyl and Fukushima.

That said, nuclear power is thousands of times safer than coal, which kills hundreds of thousands of people each year. In fact, nuclear power is the safest form of energy ever used, in terms of deaths per unit of energy.

The UCS acknowledges the safety challenges associated with nuclear energy in its report, and provides a number of technical recommendations to reduce risk. Similarly, the International Atomic Energy Agency views safety as one of the factors that will determine nuclear energy’s viability as a climate change mitigator, and offers comprehensive guidance on lessons learned from the Fukushima disaster.

What about renewables?

Another aspect of this debate surrounds the open question of whether or not renewable sources alone can meet our energy needs. Some say no, noting that technologies such as solar and wind take up vastly greater land area, require significantly more material inputs, generate substantially greater waste volume and inflict more harm on wildlife populations than nuclear does to produce the same amount of energy. In other words, their argument is that the energy density of the fuel determines its environmental and health impacts.

Others look to countries that have already succeeded in cutting their emissions to the necessary levels to see how they did it. Electricitymap.org shows how many grams of carbon pollution a region creates for each unit of electricity it generates. The global average is currently about 500, but that needs to drop below 50 within a couple of decades to prevent disaster. Apart from Norway and Uruguay, whose emissions have dropped thanks to hydroelectric resources that most countries don’t have, the other decarbonized grids — in France, Sweden, and Ontario, Canada — all rely on nuclear power.

Still others note that supplies of the rare earth metals that underpin many renewable technologies are insufficient to allow 100 percent renewable energy sources to meet the world’s needs.

Pushing back, some research suggests that we can run the country entirely on renewables using current technology.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory projects that renewable energy, combined with a more flexible electric system, would be “more than adequate to supply 80 percent of total U.S. electricity generation in 2050, while meeting demand on an hourly basis in every region of the country.” Of course, that still leaves a 20 percent shortfall, which nuclear could conceivably fill.

What do you think?

Should policymakers include supports for nuclear energy in their efforts to combat climate change? Why or why not? Tell your reps what you think, then share your thoughts below.

—Sara E. Murphy

(Image Credit: iStock.com / jotily)

Countable

Written by Countable

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(269)
  • burrkitty
    Voted Maybe
    03/14/2019
    ···

    If there was ever a question that deserved the “it’s complicated“ tag, this is it. Nuclear power frightens some people in a almost visceral way. Despite that cultural trauma, the data doesn’t support the fear. Well, because of that, there’s almost no way to have a rational conversation about it. However, nuclear power is phenomenal for baseload and sets the safety standard by which other power systems are judged. But 🤷‍♀️ people can’t get over irrational fear and it takes a specific kind of self-control to override terror with facts. LOL and most people don’t have it. The fact is that nuclear power is one of the safest ways to generate electricity and also one of the best ways we have of combating climate change while still allowing economic growth. Modern fears concerning the risks of nuclear power are greatly exaggerated by activists, politicians, and the media, which too often are less concerned with the facts than with supporting their own economic interests and or agendas. P.S. I’m not preaching from a safe place. No NIMBY here. The majority of my extended family live in the incident exclusion zone of ANO. The steam plumes from the cooling tower are visible from my grandmas house. It’s been safely keeping Arkansas power costs low for 40 years. 😂✌️💞 ❤️☣️ Victory is ours.

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  • Esther
    Voted No
    03/14/2019
    ···

    Wind and sun. How much nuclear waste can our environment withstand?

    Like (28)
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  • Tim
    Voted Yes
    03/14/2019
    ···

    Yes. The least expensive option and the optimal power density to number of homes served. Make this happen. I teach in the nuclear field and I am a certified solar pro. A good mix of ALL energy sources is required.

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  • Michael
    03/14/2019
    ···

    It’s clean and it’s safe. We use the byproducts for the military!

    Like (16)
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  • Chickie
    Voted No
    03/14/2019
    ···

    We cannot continue being blind and deaf to the stark reality of Climate Change. Something MUST be done, with guidance from scientists, to circumvent the road to disaster. We were appointed to take care of our lands, waters and air. As the current administration refuses to cede to the scientific community on what needs to be done, our representatives need to take up the helm and enable us to take an active part to the solution. The expense of building new nuclear power plants is not the answer. It appears the upkeep of aged nuclear power plants may be as equally expensive. We must subscribe to clean energy. Otherwise, our future is bleak.

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  • J. scott
    Voted Maybe
    03/14/2019
    ···

    Even when Nuclear ☢️ Power works well, and indeed in the USA it often does, the problem is disposing of spent Nuclear rods that contain radioactive particles and poison ☠️ for centuries after their removal from the reactor.

    Like (19)
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  • River
    03/15/2019
    ···

    We need an energy supply that is cheap, dependable, and low-carbon. Diverse portfolios of clean energy technologies that include nuclear, wind, solar, and hydro have already delivered this in France, Sweden, and Ontario. So yes, nuclear is essential.

    Like (10)
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  • Yours.Truly
    Voted Yes
    03/14/2019
    ···

    If we are going to decarbonize and have enough energy to take care of everyone (in terms of food, sanitation, medical care, etc.), we’ll need nuclear power. Solar and wind power are not up to the task by themselves. Nuclear can also be used for desalinization and district heating. We could decarbonize shipping by powering container ships with small reactors (like we do with aircraft carriers). And we can extract uranium from seawater! It’s just cheaper to mine it now. We need nuclear to make a low-carbon future work!

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  • Ken
    Voted No
    03/14/2019
    ···

    It’s time we start evolving from energy such as nuclear. At this time we already have massive amounts of nuclear waste stored. We don’t even know what to do with the waste we have now. The half life of this stuff. The possibility of massive contamination from spill from earthquake or some other natural disaster would be catastrophic.

    Like (13)
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  • James
    03/14/2019
    ···

    Nuclear power isn’t bad but you need a lot of water to cool down reactors! Then you need to store the waste for thousands of years! Bury it in a mountain or something! Solar and wind alone? Sorry Greenie Socialists but in today’s world that supplies a drop in the bucket! Makes the landscape look like hell too! I don’t see Crazy Bernie Sanders or Former Bice President Al Gore “Mr Global Warming” with solar panels on their big mansions or those huge ugly white wind mills in their back yards either! Go figure! What’s good for the goose should be good for the gander Hey???? We have clean burning coal plants and oil drilling has never been more safe! And cars very clean burning ! How about going to natural gas? It’s clean burning and cars can run on that or propane! Trucks as well! Do go away with your dumb windmills and solar panels!

    Like (7)
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  • AbolishWaste
    Voted No
    03/15/2019
    ···

    Wind, geothermal, tidal, and solar energy technologies are all very well-developed. Furthermore, the radioactivity is a major issue for this form of energy. My home is powered with 100% solar energy from the grid, and my electric bill is cheaper than with nuclear or fossil energy.

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  • John
    Voted Yes
    03/14/2019
    ···

    This needs to happen! It is a energy source that is very important.

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  • Glowurm
    Voted No
    03/14/2019
    ···

    Hell, no! Think Pennsylvania and Three Mile Island! Think Japan, once the tsunami hit! Just another accident waiting to happen. You people will put forward whatever destruction your donors wish to impose on us. To hell with what’s right or good for us! We have told you time and time again. We want clean, green energy! Would you please listen TO US for A CHANGE?

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  • Leo
    Voted Maybe
    03/14/2019
    ···

    Perhaps if fusion reactors finally produce surplus energy. Fission is simply too dangerous.

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  • Hunter
    Voted Yes
    03/14/2019
    ···

    This is the cleanest and most efficient form of energy. The energy Dwight D Eisenhower believed would be the future during his presidency. I believe in a nuclear America.

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  • mikesindahouse
    Voted No
    03/14/2019
    ···

    Nuclear power while it can be contained creates waste that must be managed forever. Nothing in this world is made perfectly and we will fail to contain it well before it is no longer radioactive. Therefore, if you value humanity, you must not continue to utilize it unless you plan to jettison the waste into the far reaches of space. That will make it dirty by use of rocket fuel and if the rocket carrying it away explodes then nuclear waste rains down on everyone. The best way forward is to use wind, solar, and hydro and try to make them as friendly to wildlife as possible.

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  • LogicalThinker
    Voted Yes
    03/14/2019
    ···

    Climate change is serious. It’s not an idea it is a reality.

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  • Dave
    03/15/2019
    ···

    No to nuclear energy. Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years. Plutonium is the most dangerous material in the world. Currently, there are no long-term storage or disposal solutions for radioactive waste. Cancer among populations living in proximity to Chernobyl and Fukushima are continuing to this day. Fukushima is still dumping radioactive material in to the ocean. There are 444 plant in the world, in order to meet current and future energy needs, the nuclear sector would have to scale up to around 14,500 plants. Nuclear plants need to be located near a source of water for cooling, and there aren’t enough safe locations in the world. Initial capital costs of billions of dollars, fuel, and maintenance costs are much higher for nuclear plants. That not even talking about the billions to disposal and maintenance of the waste. Workers in the nuclear industry are also exposed to higher than normal levels of radiation, and as a result are at a higher rate of death from cancer. Geological repository, the waste might emerge and threaten future generations to come. Man-made radiation differs from natural radiation. France, Germany and Japan are moving away from nuclear power. Alternative energy is a better choice all around!

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  • Liz
    Voted Yes
    03/15/2019
    ···

    Absolutely yes. The technology has come so far and it’s a thousand times safer than people assume. It’s costly to set up but it provides a ton of jobs and would grow the economy. We are in crisis. Mother Earth needs all the help she can get.

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  • Susan
    Voted Yes
    03/15/2019
    ···

    I’ve had the opportunity to spend a good bit of time in France. They have had nuclear power plants as their main source of cheap power for many years. The citizenry have no problems with it and have no fear of it. They see it as a safe source of energy along with solar and wind. It should be a consideration.

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