If the first thing you think of when you hear the word “nuclear” is The Simpsons, then the global challenge of limiting climate change is going to be tough. Nuclear power offers numerous energy, health, and environmental benefits, but it is more often associated with danger and Homer. As the global community moves to address climate change, carbon-free power is a crucial component, and nuclear energy is a significant provider of that.
Climate change is real, and actions are being taken to minimize the adverse effects of it. The most notable international effort is the Paris Agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The Paris Agreement includes restricting a global rise in temperature to less than 2°C and reaching net-zero emissions by 2100. The question is how do we do it. Deploying more renewables is an obvious choice, but nuclear power is a less acknowledged part of the answer.
Nuclear power provides 63% of carbon-free electricity and prevents the emission of around 500 million tons of carbon annually in the United States. If nuclear power were removed from the U.S. energy portfolio, electricity sector emissions would increase 27%. The scary thing is that this is slowly becoming an unintentional reality. There are 99 nuclear reactors currently operating in the United States, but up to 20 could shut down before their licenses expire within the next 10 years due in part to record low energy prices from an influx of cheap natural gas. Premature closures mean additional carbon emissions because replacement generation sources are most likely to be natural gas. It gets worse; only five new reactors will be built by 2021. In other words, the U.S.’ primary source of carbon-free electricity is in decline at a time when we need it to expand.
The U.S.’ primary source of carbon-free electricity is in decline at a time when we need it to expand.
The main U.S. federal policy for combating climate change, the Clean Power Plan (CPP), does not adequately value the carbon-free contribution of nuclear power. Announced in 2015 by the Obama Administration, the CPP requires carbon dioxide emissions from power plants to be cut by 32% below 2005 levels by 2030. States may count new nuclear reactors and expansions to existing plants toward their CPP mandates, but they receive no credit for the continued operation of existing reactors. Particularly in states where nuclear plants are being threatened by low natural gas prices, this is a major problem. The CPP is currently being challenged in court and not popular with the Trump administration. Many states still are formulating plans to comply with the CPP, but they primarily focus on renewables.
Renewables and the related power storage technologies are vital, but they may not grow fast enough. A massive scale-up of renewable energy sources would have to occur during a fairly short timeframe and may require over-building to ensure enough energy is available. Some argue that an all renewable fleet is possible, but most studies have concluded that nuclear power and carbon capture and sequestration will be necessary. Even if an all renewable fleet could be achieved, an over reliance on this type of intermittent energy could impact the stability of the electricity grid and our ability to scale up to meet the expected growth in energy demand.
A few states have recognized the importance of maintaining their carbon-free nuclear power capacity while simultaneously pursuing renewables and other low carbon technologies. Ohio made a deal to preserve nuclear in its energy mix. New York plans to provide $1 billion in subsidies to ensure its upstate nuclear plants do not close prematurely. Even with a surge of renewables that it is planning, New York recognizes that it will not be able to meet its clean energy goal by 2030 without its Fitzpatrick, Ginna, and Nine Mile nuclear plants. Similarly, Illinois recently passed major legislation that will allow two major nuclear power plants in the state to continue to operate as part of an overall carbon reduction effort.
Popular culture, especially television and cinema, can help provide more accurate information to the public about nuclear energy.
Integrating nuclear power in the carbon reduction plans of more states will require changing how people view the technology. Popular culture, especially television and cinema, can help provide more accurate information to the public about nuclear energy, though associations of a negligent Homer will be difficult to replace. More attention is needed on the risk mitigation and safety and security measures that industry has put in place in response to changing threats and accidents like Fukushima. The way media portrays nuclear power affects the public’s risk perception of its social value and utility. The more educated the public becomes on nuclear power, the less fear and bias that will exist. Overcoming this is critical for the U.S. to embrace a rational, pragmatic energy portfolio to address the climate change crisis.
Gill Wylie is a research associate at the Partnership for Global Security.