How to Solve the Climate Crisis: Why the United States Must Choose the Nuclear Option

 /  Nov. 18, 2020, 12:26 p.m.

Salem Nuclear Power Plant
Salem Nuclear Power Plant

To meet the challenge that climate change poses to human civilization, the United States needs to decarbonize, and quickly. Decarbonization includes electricity generation, but it also must extend beyond that into the transportation, manufacturing, and food production sectors. To decarbonize these sectors, Americans need to electrify our entire society—effectively making electricity generation carbon-free and increasing its output to over 100 percent of current generation in order to fuel electric cars, heating, and industrial output. This complicates the problem: we must not only eliminate carbon emissions from electricity production, but at the same time increase our generation of electricity at very fast rates in ways that make it cost-effective for use in transportation and manufacturing. While there are many different ways to reach this goal, the data is clear: nuclear energy must play a significant role in decarbonization if the United States is to do so quickly and effectively.

Fully Renewable

One conventional answer to the question of decarbonization is renewable energy, such as solar, wind, or hydroelectric power. These sources of power are self-generating and do not depend on any outside fuel source, such as coal or natural gas plants. Crucially, they do not generate carbon emissions. Plans to transition to entirely renewable energy are endorsed by climate activist groups such as the Sunrise Movement in the form of a Green New Deal. In the past election cycle many prominent candidates, such as Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg, said that they would not invest heavily in any other fuel source. So what’s stopping us from using 100 percent renewables?

For starters, renewable energy is highly unreliable. As measured by the US Energy Information Administration,the capacity factor, a measure of the percentage of time that a power source produces electricity, is 25 percent for solar, 38 percent for hydroelectric, and 35 percent for wind energy. Renewables, on average, produce electricity about a third of the time. That number is not liable to change with increased research and development—the sun will keep getting hidden behind clouds, and wind will keep blowing at the same rate. In fact, it’s possible that as renewables become more widely used around the world their capacity factors will actually decrease, as they will be used in less-than-ideal locations with less sunlight or wind. This capacity factor means that we’ll need an alternative energy source for periods of no production, such as nights and calm wind days. That role has traditionally been filled by carbon-heavy energy such as coal or natural gas plants that have much higher capacity factors and produce energy reliably.

Another problem with renewables is their physical location. Often, the best place to put solar panels or windmills, such as open plains, is far from where the energy they produce will actually be consumed. Both wind and solar energy require large areas of land in order to produce a significant amount of electricity, and wind is especially dependent on the average wind strength of the region in which it is placed. In order to power an entire country, transmission lines would have to be built across multiple states, connecting areas of high renewable generation to areas of high demand. Not only is this a logistical nightmare, but it adds to the cost of renewables as they become more prevalent. Transmission lines could also be used to make up for the capacity factor problem by allowing one area of low production to draw on energy from a region of high production, but this would require connecting entire regions of the country to each other. If the Pacific Northwest has a cloudy and wind-less week, it could draw on excess power generated in the Southwest. This solution, however, would dramatically increase the need for high-capacity transmission lines and the costs that accompany them.

Another solution to the capacity factor problem is to use energy storage systems such as lithium ion batteries, which are currently the cheapest batteries on the market. The use of batteries would allow for the storage of unused electricity during peak production and allow consumers to tap into the reservoir during off-hours. However, these batteries are environmentally and technically problematic. Lithium mining can have a negative effect on water supply and toxic pollution in developing countries. Lithium batteries also only store electricity for a few weeks at most, which is fine for hour-to-hour variation in energy demand from households which usually peaks in the afternoon. It’s not sufficient for season-to-season changes, however, such as air conditioning use in the summer or heating in the winter. Households typically draw power from renewables during the peak energy demand portion of the day, while using power from fossil fuel plants on their local grid during non-production hours. This makes the marginal cost of solar energy seem much cheaper than it would be in a purely renewable world. By keeping their use of solar energy well below its capacity factor of 25 percent, households do not have to invest in batteries or additional transmission lines. In order to run entirely on solar energy, however, households would have to increase their solar energy production to quadruple that of their demand at any given moment, as well as buy enough battery capacity to hold three-quarters of that solar energy for long periods of time.

With such a drastic increase in battery capacity required for a 100% renewable future, concerns have arisen about the scarcity of lithium and whether it will constrain battery production. Lithium batteries are already used in most electric cars, which are crucial to decarbonizing the transportation sector. Recent estimates show that even if battery storage is not used for electricity production, the increased demand for lithium resulting from a mostly-electric transportation system would only leave about seventeen years of lithium production left before the earth’s stores are depleted. In addition to the fact that the lifespan of lithium ion batteries is no more than fifteen years, this scarcity makes their use in electricity production unrealistic in the long term.

The Nuclear Option

There are clearly many issues involved in going 100 percent renewable. The cost of electricity would skyrocket, making electricity an unattractive substitute for fossil fuel use in other sectors. But there is another carbon-clean energy source out there that significantly reduces the cost of decarbonization: nuclear energy. Nuclear is functionally the exact opposite of renewables: its capacity factor is the highest of any energy source at 92 percent (the other 8 percent being closures for maintenance), producing energy at a flat and reliable rate. Nuclear power plants take up a relatively small amount of land and can be built anywhere, allowing them to piggy-back off of existing transmission lines used by fossil fuel plants. In this way, nuclear is the perfect complement to renewables, allowing them to supply extra electricity during peak demand hours and providing a baseload of energy during the time when renewables aren’t producing. 

The complementary nature of nuclear energy and renewables in the quest to reach carbon neutrality isn’t just hypothetical. It bears out in cost analyses. A 2018 study conducted by MIT researchers found that by including low-carbon or zero-carbon fuel sources such as nuclear energy, the total cost of decarbonization could drop by anywhere between 10 and 60 percent. This conclusion holds even if the cost of nuclear energy stays the same while renewables keep getting cheaper. Crucially, the researchers also found that the marginal cost of renewable energy increases exponentially as its share of the total energy grid approaches 100 percent due to the cost of battery storage and transmission lines. Therefore, renewable energy cannot make up too much of the electric grid if the end goal is for American energy to be both cheap and carbon-free.

There are widespread critiques of nuclear energy for a variety of reasons, some of which are more valid than others. Detractors claim that nuclear energy releases more carbon into the atmosphere during mining and construction than other renewable energy sources, giving it a substantial ‘hidden carbon footprint.’ In practice, this does not bear out: nuclear energy releases about as much or less carbon than wind or solar energy, with hydropower’s carbon footprint being much larger than all three. Nonproliferation activists also claim that nuclear energy increases the likelihood of nuclear weapons development. This question is irrelevant for questions of expansion within the United States, which already has one of the largest nuclear weapons programs in the world. The claim is also out of line with historical data: the additional scrutiny that nuclear energy programs entail for any country significantly increases the risk of costly nonproliferation sanctions, making nuclear weapons programs much more costly than any military-related benefits of nuclear power plants entail.

Safety Concerns

Better-founded critiques of nuclear energy point to the issues of safety precautions and the environmental hazards of nuclear waste. These concerns deserve to be taken seriously. When accounting for the accident at Chernobyl, deaths per year related to nuclear energy since its inception are about twice as high as the closest renewable source, wind. However, these death rates become miniscule when compared to air pollution and accident deaths related to fossil fuel production, at about 350 times lower than coal production and 250 times lower than oil. Transitioning to nuclear energy from fossil fuels would save tens of thousands of lives per year in the United States alone even if accident rates remain as high as they were in the past, which they won’t.

The three major nuclear accidents in history—Fukushima, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island—are all terrible tragedies. But one thing to keep in mind is that all three of these plants were built in the 1970s and 1980s using first- or second-generation designs, which are markedly different from any modern reactors that would be built today. The Chernobyl disaster, by far the most serious disaster and the only one to directly lead to deaths, was so severe due to a combination of poor design used by the Soviet bloc at the time, and was compounded by poor crisis management. Chernobyl is also the only disaster to have caused deaths due to radiation in the history of nuclear power. The accident at Fukushima resulted in partial containment of radiation due to a large tsunami, with no deaths or serious illnesses resulting from radiation (the death rate is complicated by the presence of the tsunami, which resulted in many deaths). In the case of the accident at Three Mile Island, authorities contained the radiation completely with no serious health or environmental consequences.

Waste Containment

Finally, we come to the issue of waste containment and environmental hazards. This is the sticking point for many environmentally-minded climate activists who see the possibility of environmental damage as a deal-breaker for a path towards zero net carbon. Again, it is important to note that alternative paths towards zero net carbon are not without downsides. The United States was slated to store all of its waste in Yucca Mountain, Nevada, but the Obama administration suspended the project indefinitely in 2009. The decision was made for very complicated reasons, most notably pushback from Native tribes near the site, but crucially the Energy Department did not cite any technical or safety concerns. Larger concerns surrounding the history of waste disposal and uranium mining on Native land are entirely legitimate and reflect a justified distrust among Native Americans of the US government’s commitment to their sovereignty and well-being. However, this history is a product of broken institutions and racist leadership, not dysfunctional technology. Any new expansion of nuclear energy programs can and should be operated in explicitly anti-racist terms, respecting Native land claims and safety concerns while also providing cost-effective and carbon-free electricity to all Americans.

The safe disposal of nuclear waste remains a political problem, but it is no longer a technical one: an alternative to the Yucca Mountain storage facility has in fact already been found and is in use. A site that currently stores military nuclear waste half a mile deep in salt formations near Carlsbad, New Mexico has the benefits of being geologically stable and free from any flowing water that could become contaminated. It has the capacity to store the next one thousand years worth of nuclear waste generated in the entire world.

Protect and Cultivate

So where does this leave us? Nuclear energy is both safe and cost effective. It will be crucial in the transition away from fossil fuels in the upcoming decades and can be perfectly paired with renewables for rapid mobilization of carbon-free energy. However, existing nuclear plants are at risk of being shut down or having their operating licenses expire, and almost all will be replaced with dirtier natural gas plants. In order to reverse this dangerous backsliding that threatens the progress we have made towards our goal of zero net carbon, the United States must stop any premature closures of nuclear plants and renew the operating licenses of the ones that can still operate. Make no mistake: foot-dragging on the issue of nuclear power will only further empower the fossil fuel industry. That is a dangerous path to go down.

Nuclear energy has been scaled up before, and it can be done again. Starting in the 1970s, France made a large commitment to nuclear energy generation; today, it accounts for 75 percent of electricity generated in the country and earns France three billion euros per year in energy exports. The United States should follow France’s example and increase its investment in nuclear plants, such as the next generation small modular reactor, which can generate power with reduced upfront and operating cost. It should also make nuclear power cheaper by streamlining regulation processes: by standardizing plant designs, centralizing construction, and providing low-interest loans, the United States can significantly reduce the capital costs of larger nuclear plants as well as the time it takes to build them. 

America needs to take initiative on the world stage by choosing a pragmatic approach to climate change that will provide Americans with safe and affordable energy, showing that we care more about tackling the issue quickly than about unrealistic goals that are nearly impossible to achieve.

This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, which can be found here. No changes were made to the original image, which is attributed to Peretzp and can be found here.

Ólafur Stefàn Oddsson Cricco


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