Playing Politics with Nuclear Energy

Democrats are divided on using nuclear energy to stop climate change

 On Climate, Sanders and Warren Must Go Nuclear

 Why Nuclear Power Must Be Part of the Energy Solution

The 3,122-megawatt Civaux Nuclear Power Plant in France, which opened in 1997

In his latest denial of reality, Trump got out his sharpie and altered Hurricane Dorian’s direction to send it 650 miles west to Alabama. And naturally he refuses to admit he was wrong. The press is having a field day.

For a much longer timeframe, the opponents of nuclear power have engaged in a similar denial of reality and good scientific evidence. They have mounted protests and lobbied Congress for years and are now coming up against the overpowering reality of climate change. Nuclear will have to be in the energy mix, whether they like it or not. We cannot mitigate the problem without it.

Now, most of these deniers are Democrats and so the presidential candidates have walked on eggshells over this issue. Finally in the recent CNN climate town halls, Cory Booker and Andrew Yang came out in favor of pursuing nuclear and developing the technology. Others waffled; Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren said no. Perhaps, as their understanding of energy options deepens, they will change their tune. Or maybe not: there are lots of votes out there that might go against them if they go nuclear.

Nuclear now provides 20 percent of US total energy output. And yet, says the Union of Concerned Scientists, “nearly 35 percent of the country’s nuclear power plants, representing 22 percent of US nuclear capacity, are at risk of early closure or slated to retire.” The reasons? They are unprofitable, costly to operate, need upgrading. But you don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Nuclear produces near-zero emissions, its biggest selling point. It doesn’t shut down when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine. The two downsides people point to are: the accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima and the storage of waste. Storing nuclear waste is something we know how to do. The problem is political, per the evidence of Yucca Mountain.

And we have learned something from both meltdowns and their aftereffects. One, similar events could and should never happen again. Surprisingly, the health consequences have been much less severe than expected. Two, safety will not come cheap, and new power plants are expensive. New, smaller modular reactors may be the answer; thorium as a fuel poses less storage risk than uranium.

It will take a hardnosed view of energy policy and a commitment to state-owned nuclear power plants to get us to anything like scale in an effective climate policy. Scientists and many planners know this. France did it in the ‘80s, and the transformation worked.

I think the lefties on the Democratic side may be getting the message, slowly. Eric Levitz wrote a very good summary of the problems and processes here. He says:

The political center’s ideological hangups are a much bigger obstacle to rational climate policy than the left’s. As David Wallace-Wells writes, the gap between “political realism” and scientific realism on climate policy is vast and ever-growing. We have procrastinated past the point when incremental, nudge-based approaches to emissions reduction could be described as serious. . . . We have already put enough carbon in the climate to ensure that our planet will grow increasingly inhospitable for the rest of our lives, and the longer we wait to find an alternative means of powering our civilization, the more inhospitable it will become, and the more human beings will needlessly suffer and die. The available evidence suggests that decarbonizing at a remotely responsible pace will require us to transcend the neoliberal era’s taboo against ambitious state planning and industrial policy. . . .

We know what happens when a country committed to scaling up renewables decommissions its nuclear plants—it starts burning more coal.

P.S. The Future Looks Like Salt Reactors

P.P.S. Some of the real problems with nuclear that I didn’t address.

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