Is There a Nuclear Option for Stopping Climate Change?
Mr. Bokat-Lindell is a staff editor. Humanitys failure to avert the crisis of a warming climate is sometimes framed as a grand technological problem: For centuries, countries relied on fossil fuels to industrialize their economies and generate wealth, and it was only in recent years that alternative ways of powering a society, like solar and wind energy, became viable. But when it comes to electricity, at least, that story isnt true. Today, the United States gets from fossil fuels and just 20 percent from renewables. The final 20 percent comes from nuclear power, a technology that has existed since the 1950s, produces no carbon dioxide and has killed far fewer people than fossil fuels. Decarbonizing the electric grid is certainly climate change poses, but it is . And the Biden administration the United States needs to meet it by 2035. Should nuclear power be playing a bigger role in the transition? Heres what people are saying. Its proponents often point out that nuclear power is responsible for the . In the 1970s, France embarked on a sweeping, centrally planned expansion of its nuclear power industry to break its dependence on foreign oil. Over the next decade, it managed to expand its economy even as it cut its emissions at a rate that no other country has achieved since. Today, France derives of its electricity from nuclear power. Why shouldnt the United States follow suit? A rapid increase in nuclear energy would slash emissions from the power sector, as the French example makes clear, The Atlantics Robinson Meyer in 2019. Even today, Frances carbon density its carbon emissions per capita ranks well below that of Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States. Solar and wind farms, for example, take up much more space than nuclear plants, and they provide power only as the weather allows. In part for that reason, several recent studies that utilities could achieve 80 percent zero-carbon electricity by 2030 using todays renewable energy technology, but cleaning up the last 20 percent will prove more difficult. There are several proposed ways of solving renewable energys storage problem including huge battery arrays and hydrogen fuel but those technologies arent yet up to the task, my colleague Brad Plumer last month. Joshua S. Goldstein, Staffan A. Qvist and Steven Pinker in The Times in 2019. According to one study published this year, air pollution from fossil fuels killed a staggering By contrast, Goldstein, Qvist and Pinker noted that in 60 years of nuclear power, only three accidents have raised public alarm, and just one Chernobyl directly caused any deaths. What about nuclear waste, which can remain radioactive for tens of thousands of years? Compared with climate change, its a much easier environmental problem to solve, they wrote. More than of spent fuel can be recycled, and that which cant could be entombed in repositories deep underground, In 1987, Congress settled on plans to build a national in Nevada, but local, state and federal for decades. As a result, Americas nuclear plants keep their waste on site in that were not intended for permanent storage. But it doesnt have to be this way. If the American public and politicians can face real threats and overcome unfounded fears, Goldstein, Qvist and Pinker argued, we can solve humanitys most pressing challenge and leave our grandchildren a bright future of climate stability and abundant energy. Nuclear power may be safer than the public believes, but the publics beliefs matter a great deal in a democracy. Solar and wind power are with Americans, but nuclear power is viewed unfavorably, with more people opposing its expansion than supporting it. Part of that opposition surely owes to the fact that when nuclear does fail, it can fail spectacularly: The 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan didnt kill anyone directly, but it led to the displacement of , and a decades-long cleanup operation that will cost . After public confidence in nuclear power plummeted, Japan nearly all of its nuclear plants, Renewables pose no comparable safety risk and are therefore deemed much less vulnerable to rollback. Nuclear plants cost billions of dollars to build, making them one of the most expensive sources of electricity. Solar panels, by contrast, now generate the so cheap that new solar projects, building costs included, can now . What is remarkable about these trends, on the nuclear industry found last year, is that the costs of renewables continue to fall due to incremental manufacturing and installation improvements while nuclear, despite over half a century of industrial experience, continues to see costs rising. That explains in part why Frances reliance on nuclear power remains such an outlier. No country has managed to develop a safe, successful, economically competitive nuclear power industry in a market-based environment, Naomi Oreskes, a Harvard historian, last year. This tells us that nuclear power is unlikely to be successful in market-based economies. It may work in China, but it is unlikely to work in most other places. Nuclear power proponents say its economic problems can be solved. Putting a price on carbon pollution so that fossil fuels reflect their true environmental cost, for example, could help make nuclear power , as could advances in reactor designs. Last year, the Department of Energy that it would fund the development of two such designs, including one But carbon taxes have so far proved , and an from the Union of Concerned Scientists in March found that so-called advanced reactor designs do not offer obvious improvements over current technology, could pose novel safety risks and will likely take decades to achieve commercial viability. that could solve the long-duration storage problem of renewables, on the other hand, appear Since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, the construction time for most reactors in the United States has exceeded 10 years, Allison Macfarlane in Foreign Affairs. If the United States hopes to meet its emissions reduction targets, it cant afford to wait that long. We need strong government support of noncarbon-emitting energy technologies that are ready to be deployed today, not 10 or 20 years from now, she writes. We have run out of time. A sweeping revival of nuclear power in the United States seems unlikely at the moment: Five of Americas nuclear reactors have been scheduled for retirement this year, which would set , and just two new ones are under construction. Both are running years behind schedule and But many climate experts who are not especially bullish about the future of nuclear power say that the United States should still take pains to keep its existing stock of nuclear plants up and running. Why? As Leah Stokes, a climate policy expert at the University of California, Santa Barbara, my colleague Ezra Klein in February, in countries where nuclear power has been phased out such as Japan, Belgium and Germany That is a terrible, terrible outcome, Stokes said. Theoretically, the United States could try to phase out nuclear power and fossil fuels at once, as Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren during their presidential campaigns. But doing so before 2035 would make a monumental challenge even harder: to one estimate, decarbonizing Americas electric grid would cost about half a trillion dollars more if nuclear power is abandoned. Such complications explain why many climate experts decline to take a hard stance on nuclear power. Its absurd to be pronuclear or antinuclear on an ideological/identity basis, David Roberts, an energy and climate journalist, last year. The world should build whatever carbon-free options are fastest and (with all costs considered) cheapest. Nuclear doesnt currently fit that bill, but new reactor designs might change that. If so, build them; if not, dont. Describe that place a beloved campsite, the levee you run on, a local market, the woods you explored as a child and tell us in a brief voice mail why you love it by calling 1-405-804-1422. What does this place mean to you, how is it changing and how do you feel seeing it reshaped by environmental issues? We are interested in hearing from the global community. Please include your country code with your phone number in your message so that we can reach you with any questions. We may use a portion of your message in a future article. Spencer Bokat-Lindell is a staff editor in the Opinion section.