This article is part of the Debatable newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Humanity’s 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 isn’t true. Today, the United States gets 60 percent of its electricity 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 not the only challenge climate change poses, but it is the central one. And the Biden administration has said the United States needs to meet it by 2035. Should nuclear power be playing a bigger role in the transition? Here’s what people are saying.
The case for going nuclear
Its proponents often point out that nuclear power is responsible for the fastest decarbonization effort in history. 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 70 percent of its electricity from nuclear power.
Why shouldn’t 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 Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer wrote in 2019. “Even today, France’s carbon density — its carbon emissions per capita — ranks well below that of Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States.”
While renewable energy has made enormous strides in recent years, nuclear power still has distinct advantages. 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 have found that utilities could achieve 80 percent zero-carbon electricity by 2030 using today’s renewable energy technology, but cleaning up the last 20 percent will prove more difficult.
There are several proposed ways of solving renewable energy’s storage problem — including huge battery arrays and hydrogen fuel — but those technologies aren’t yet up to the task, my colleague Brad Plumer wrote last month.
From a public health perspective, nuclear power is also much safer than fossil fuels, Joshua S. Goldstein, Staffan A. Qvist and Steven Pinker argued in The Times in 2019. According to one study published this year, air pollution from fossil fuels killed a staggering 8.7 million people in 2018. 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, it’s a much easier environmental problem to solve, they wrote. More than 90 percent of spent fuel can be recycled, and that which can’t could be entombed in repositories deep underground, as is done in Finland.
In 1987, Congress settled on plans to build a national nuclear waste repository in Nevada, but local, state and federal opposition have thwarted the project for decades. As a result, America’s nuclear plants keep their waste on site in steel and concrete casks that were not intended for permanent storage.
But it doesn’t 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 humanity’s most pressing challenge and leave our grandchildren a bright future of climate stability and abundant energy.”
Why nuclear power isn’t a silver bullet
Nuclear power may be safer than the public believes, but the public’s beliefs matter a great deal in a democracy. Solar and wind power are extremely popular 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 didn’t kill anyone directly, but it led to the displacement of 164,000 people, thousands of evacuation-related deaths and a decades-long cleanup operation that will cost an estimated $200 billion. After public confidence in nuclear power plummeted, Japan closed nearly all of its nuclear plants, causing its emissions to rise. Renewables pose no comparable safety risk and are therefore deemed much less vulnerable to rollback.
Another major obstacle for nuclear power is its price: 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 cheapest electricity in history — so cheap that new solar projects, building costs included, can now compete with existing nuclear plants.
“What is remarkable about these trends,” a report 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 France’s 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, said 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 competitive with natural gas, as could advances in reactor designs. Last year, the Department of Energy announced that it would fund the development of two such designs, including one championed by Bill Gates.
But carbon taxes have so far proved a political nonstarter in the United States, and an analysis 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. Advances in battery technology that could solve the long-duration storage problem of renewables, on the other hand, appear closer on the horizon.
Perhaps most important, nuclear power plants take much longer to build than renewable energy projects. Since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, the construction time for most reactors in the United States has exceeded 10 years, Allison Macfarlane notes in Foreign Affairs. If the United States hopes to meet its emissions reduction targets, it can’t 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.”
The case for keeping our options open
A sweeping revival of nuclear power in the United States seems unlikely at the moment: Five of America’s nuclear reactors have been scheduled for retirement this year, which would set a record, and just two new ones are under construction. Both are running years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget.
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, told my colleague Ezra Klein in February, in countries where nuclear power has been phased out — such as Japan, Belgium and Germany — fossil fuels tend to pick up the slack. “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 proposed during their presidential campaigns. But doing so before 2035 would make a monumental challenge even harder: According to one estimate, decarbonizing America’s 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. “It’s absurd to be ‘pronuclear’ or ‘antinuclear’ on an ideological/identity basis,” David Roberts, an energy and climate journalist, said last year. “The world should build whatever carbon-free options are fastest and (with all costs considered) cheapest. Nuclear doesn’t currently fit that bill, but new reactor designs might change that. If so, build them; if not, don’t.”
Do you have a point of view we missed? Email us at [email protected]. Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.
Is one of your favorite places in your country being affected by climate change?
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.
“Should America Go Nuclear?” [The New York Times]
“Indian Point Is Shutting Down. That Means More Fossil Fuel.” [The New York Times]
“Environmentalists and Nuclear Power? It’s Complicated” [The New York Times]
“Laser Fusion Experiment Unleashes an Energetic Burst of Optimism” [The New York Times]
“‘Advanced’ Nuclear Reactors? Don’t Hold Your Breath” [Scientific American]
Source: Read Full Article