The War on Nuclear

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By generating 56 percent of the United States’ carbon-free electricity, nuclear power plays an integral role in limiting greenhouse gas emissions and combating the effects of climate change. Its full potential has yet to be realized, however, due to coordinated campaigns designed to undermine public confidence in the energy source. The efforts of anti-nuclear activists have produced substantial results, as much of the public – falling victim to fear mongering – primarily associates safe nuclear energy with military arsenal and a few devastating accidents. These attitudes must be reversed if we aspire to reduce carbon emissions, which will not be possible without reliance on nuclear power and a diverse energy mix.  

Simply looking at the numbers reveals the widespread successes of anti-nuclear campaigns. As a percentage of U.S. electricity generation, nuclear’s contributions have stagnated, hovering around 20 percent for the past decade. This lack of growth can be attributed to a number of things, but chief among them is the aging of operating plants. Stigmas against new plant construction – largely generated by the environmental left and anti-nuclear activists – have made it to where the average U.S. nuclear power facility is now 36 years old. Relying on these older plants raises operating costs and ensures that nuclear power lags behind in innovation and remains less competitive in energy markets.

Hostility towards nuclear power has resurfaced as an issue in wake of the recent Green New Deal proposal. Among its many extreme elements, the proposal excludes nuclear power from its green revolution and even suggests phasing it out of the energy portfolio. Green New Deal proponents base their anti-nuclear sentiments on the source’s cost and supposed lack of safety. What they fail to mention is that nuclear’s cost is miniscule when compared to their own proposal. Constructing 1,000 new nuclear plants, which would supply one quarter of the nation’s energy needs, has an estimated cost of $7 trillion – a small investment when compared to the Green New Deal’s $93 trillion price tag. Nuclear power is also much safer than advertised, with only three major accidents occurring over the course of many decades. If anything, nuclear’s carbon-free status makes it one of the safest energy sources available.

Shortsighted supporters of the Green New Deal often stress the importance of replacing fossil fuels with solar and wind, but they meanwhile fail to acknowledge that nuclear may be better suited to fostering the rapid transition they desire. The U.S. energy grid, given its high demands, needs energy sources that are available around the clock. A grid that relies exclusively on wind and solar will not fulfill these needs with current technology because their productivity varies regionally and temporally and is largely outside the realm of human control. Nuclear power, by contrast, is available at all hours of the day and its plants can even withstand natural disasters, which will become increasingly important as climate change brings about more episodes of extreme weather. None of this is to say that wind and solar should not be a part of our energy future, but suggesting that they present the only options and are without flaws is intellectually dishonest and overlooks the many benefits that nuclear energy can provide.

Beyond its many positive contributions to the environment and grid efficiency, nuclear power provides a range of economic and national security benefits. The nuclear energy sector creates thousands of good-paying, highly-skilled jobs and contributes $60 billion to the U.S. economy. Taking the lead on nuclear power also ensures that the U.S. is at the forefront of developing technology and establishing international norms regarding peaceful use of uranium.

Despite its potential for impact and wide range of benefits, nuclear power is being underutilized in the United States large in part due to the false narratives perpetuated by the environmental left and anti-nuclear groups. The road to maximizing nuclear’s potential begins with upending these prevailing cultural attitudes, but we must also remove thebarriers that inhibit new plant construction and incentivize innovation in the industry. The future of combating carbon emissions and meeting growing energy needs depends on strong, clean, and diverse sources of power, something that nuclear must be a part of if we seek to accomplish these goals.  

Ronnie ThompsonComment