Is Nuclear the Answer to Reliable, Zero-Carbon Energy?
Phasing out nuclear power—as progressive politicians have called for—will only steepen the hill countries must climb to build a zero-emission power grid.
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Growing attention to climate change in the United States is drawing greater attention to nuclear power and its thus far indispensable role in generating reliable, zero-carbon electricity. This has perhaps been most obvious in the debate among America’s Democratic presidential candidates, who are sharply divided on nuclear energy. In practice, however, the United States needs nuclear energy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to levels likely to avoid the most damaging climate impacts. And so do many other countries.
Some progressive Democrats seem unwilling to acknowledge the extensive research demonstrating the critical role that nuclear power must play in providing emissions-free electricity. A recent review of 40 academic studies (on which one of my colleagues was a co-author) found that, while wind and solar power can make important contributions the power system, deep decarbonization—moving beyond, say, 50–70% of electricity generation—is much more likely to be feasible and affordable if the electric power supply has a broad mix of fuels, including nuclear power and fossil fuel generation with carbon capture technologies. Despite Senator Bernie Sanders’s claim that nuclear energy and carbon capture are “false solutions,” the fact that both are key to addressing climate change is a well-established research-driven reality.
No less significant for Democrats, former President Barack Obama’s energy secretary, Ernest Moniz, has been a strong advocate for nuclear power, as has one of his former deputies, Daniel Poneman (now an industry executive), who recently published a book articulately and persuasively asserting that advanced nuclear power technologies will be essential both in combating climate change and in limiting nuclear proliferation.
Why do both scientists and senior officials support nuclear power? The fundamental problem is that wind and solar energy are neither consistent across hours, days, or seasons nor easily ramped up or down to respond to fluctuating demand. As a result, building a national electric grid using exclusively (or even predominantly) these sources would require considerable excess generation capacity, extensive new transmission lines (to use larger geographic areas to balance electricity production and consumption), and staggering amounts of energy storage capacity.
Moreover, because wind and solar produce much less power on the same geographic footprint as nuclear power or fossil fuels, they would also require at least several times more land to meet US electricity needs.
Cheaper in the End?
America’s existing nuclear fleet contributes considerably to the nation’s electricity supply, providing about 19% of net generation in 2018, according to the US Energy Information Agency. Notwithstanding their rapid growth as costs decline, wind, solar, and other renewable sources (excluding hydroelectric dams) generated roughly half that in 2018, comprising around 10% of net generation. With this in mind, phasing out nuclear power—as Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have called for—will only steepen the hill America must climb to build a zero-emission power grid, especially at the unrealistically fast pace that these two progressives propose.
It is not unreasonable to raise questions about whether the past US approach to nuclear power—multibillion-dollar mega-projects that take years to design, permit, and build—can succeed. In fairness, however, the time and cost are in no small part a consequence of a flawed regulatory framework. America’s lack of recent experience building nuclear plants also swells costs in executing what amounts to a matrix of complex, interconnected construction projects.
Long-term storage arrangements for nuclear waste remain a problem, though not an insurmountable one, especially if one argues (as both Warren and Sanders do) that climate change is an “emergency” that could produce “catastrophic” outcomes. The main obstacle to completing the Department of Energy’s Yucca Mountain storage facility is not a lack of safe technology or money but rather political will.
From this perspective, Senator Cory Booker’s call for $20 billion in new federal investment in advanced nuclear technologies is among the more constructive Democratic policy proposals. Advanced nuclear technologies hold great promise in generating safe, affordable, secure, and reliable electricity. Indeed, the advent of small modular reactors, including reactors using alternatives to the current pressurized water designs, could make the difference between achieving our climate goals and falling short. Additional federal support for research and up-to-date regulations that move beyond rules designed for large-scale nuclear power stations will be critical in reaching that future.
No less important will be ensuring that America’s existing nuclear generating capacity stays online as long as is practical. Prematurely closing nuclear plants to replace them with wind or solar power—or more often, natural gas—means undertaking considerable efforts that won’t move the United States closer to a clean power system. Moreover, decommissioning nuclear plants is itself an expensive undertaking. At $500 million to $1 billion each, according to some estimates, shutting down the roughly 100 reactors operating in the United States could cost $50 billion to $100 billion or more—on top of the expenditures necessary to build something else to generate all that electricity.
Killing off America’s civil nuclear industry could also have profound national security consequences. Russia is already the world’s leading exporter of nuclear plants, with China in second place. Handing these two governments permanent control of global nuclear markets—and the practical ability to set international norms in the nuclear industry—will mean not only sacrificing competitiveness and green jobs building advanced nuclear reactors for export but giving up US leadership on nuclear nonproliferation, losing diplomatic leverage over governments interested in buying nuclear power plants, and ceding key markets and strategic relationships to America’s principal international competitors.
Wind energy and solar power have made useful contributions to fighting climate change and will certainly do much more in the future as the technologies continue to improve. Yet for all the promise that renewable energy sources hold, the idea that they can fulfill 100% of America’s electricity demand—or that of any other nation—is the real “false solution.” Ignoring this is no less a retreat from reality as ignoring the climate challenge itself.
Paul J. Saunders is President of Energy Innovation Reform Project, a non-profit organization working to promote advanced energy technologies. He served as a State Department Senior Advisor in the George W. Bush administration.