Going Nuclear Might Be the Best Way to Combat Climate Change

Without federal policy supporting nuclear energy, we'll run out of time to decarbonize.
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The Exelon Byron Nuclear Generating Stations running at full capacity on May 14th, 2007, in Byron, Illinois.

The Exelon Byron Nuclear Generating Stations running at full capacity on May 14th, 2007, in Byron, Illinois. The state gets over half of its energy from nuclear plants, and offers credits to keep those plants afloat.

In an ideal world, we wouldn't need nuclear power.

Compared to fossil fuels, nuclear power can seem almost pristine, but it still has serious drawbacks. The risks of renewables are minimal compared to the ever-looming possibility of nuclear meltdowns.

No, in an ideal world, renewable energy and energy-storage technology would provide enough electricity to sustain us on even the cloudiest, windless days. Ideally, renewable energy will eventually become as stable and consistent as if it came from natural gas and coal; it would just be clean instead. In the future, a 100 percent renewable energy mix could feasibly meet our current needs, and would be far preferable to a renewable-nuclear energy mix. That's mostly because nuclear—while still quite safe—poses certain threats, including public-health risks during the uranium mining process and a lack of safe long-term storage for spent fuel.

But that's not the world we live in, and we won't live in it for a while; research suggests that 100 percent renewable energy is possible, but it's still likely a few decades away, and we have an increasingly limited timeline to radically change our energy supply to mitigate climate change.

If we hope to achieve 100 percent carbon-free energy within that time frame, then, we need to ramp up nuclear soon if we want to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Indeed, most pathways to doing so, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, include the use of nuclear energy. And to ramp up nuclear, we need robust federal policy to support existing plants—and create pathways to build new ones.

In 2013, looking at historical data, NASA scientists wrote that, "If nuclear power never existed, the energy it supplied almost certainly would have been supplied by fossil fuels instead (overwhelmingly coal)." A similar situation is playing out today: Over a third of the United States' nuclear plants are slated to close early or retire, and when they do, natural gas will likely fill the energy gap they leave behind.

One challenge is that nuclear is expensive. The cost to build a new nuclear plant can be enough to stall or outright cancel a project. The only nuclear plant currently in construction in the U.S. is way over-budget and expected to cost, as Vox's David Roberts puts it, a "face-melting" $25 billion.

Pro-nuclear commentators argue that, despite high initial costs, nuclear is cheap once it's built. But Rob Cowin, director of government affairs for the Union of Concerned Scientists' climate and energy program, says that "operating costs of nuclear reactors have actually only increased" since the 1970s to 1990s, when most of the current fleet was built, because, "eventually, you have to replace things." Absent federal regulation that incentivizes clean energy, cost-cutting nuclear plant owners may put off replacing equipment, which paradoxically costs them more in the long run.

Some states, like Illinois and New York, have passed regulations to help the nuclear industry. Illinois gets over half of its energy from nuclear plants, and offers credits to keep those plants afloat. The state's general assembly is currently weighing a bill called the Clean Energy Jobs Act to decarbonize Illinois' energy sector by 2030. After that, "the nuclear capacity, as it comes offline, will be replaced every step of the way by wind and solar power," says Cary Shepherd, who helped craft the bill through his work as policy director for the Illinois Environmental Council. The bill sets a goal for 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.

Federal policy should follow suit, first by setting clean energy goals. And to be effective, that policy must be paired with substantial nuclear incentives. The Green New Deal, the current best chance we have at robust environmental policy, leaves the option open for nuclear without taking a stance either way, but it's clear that nuclear will need strong federal support if we're to have a fighting chance of avoiding the worst of climate change. It's the most readily available option for clean energy—and, since nuclear plants have built-in retirement dates, we can phase them out naturally when renewables are developed enough to reliably provide enough energy.

Some environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, maintain a staunch opposition to nuclear power, arguing that it takes funds away from renewable-energy development. Other critics say it's wrong to bill nuclear energy as "clean." But renewable energies aren't yet ready for mass deployment, nuclear is still significantly cleaner than natural gas, and we're running out of time to decarbonize. If there was ever a time for pulling all the stops, now is that time—and nuclear is the solution, however temporary.

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