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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 | 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)

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