Calls for clean energy need to include—not exclude—nuclear power

The hunt for reliable clean energy sources in the United States has been going on for decades, and with UN report on climate change making the rounds almost daily, the conversation is ever present in our political discourse– as it should be.

After several years of a decline in CO2 emissions, the US took a step back in 2018 as its emissions rose 3.4%. It is paramount that we continue to reduce our carbon footprint to mitigate the present and future effects of climate change on our country and the world. To do this, we have to diversify the way we get our energy as we gradually move away from fossil fuels. While renewable sources like wind and solar are worthwhile and should be a part of our energy production plans, they won’t be enough on their own. That is why nuclear energy should get the attention it deserves for producing clean energy, and should be a part of the American energy plan moving forward to reduce carbon emissions.

Encouragingly, the rate of usage for renewable energy sources in the United States has continued to rise in recent years, and the success of that particular industry will continue to reduce our carbon footprint and bolster our economy. However, at this moment non-nuclear sources of renewable energy account for about 17% of our energy production. This is compared to the 20% figure that nuclear energy produces alone. Despite its consistent, carbon-free energy production, nuclear energy often lacks the attention it so rightly deserves in the energy discussion.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) unveiled her “Green New Deal” (GND) upon being sworn into Congress and already has several Democratic co-sponsors in the House of Representatives. The plan calls for 100% renewable energy production by the U.S. within ten years to mitigate the effects of climate change that the UN report indicates could hit in 2030. Among the proposal’s energy alternatives to fossil fuels are wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass. Not only does the GND make no mention of hydropower, which is essential in places like the northwest, but it also neglects nuclear power as an energy alternative to fossil fuels. Despite producing 60% of our country’s emissions-free power, nuclear power remains excluded from the GND and the national energy discussion at large.

Critics of nuclear power plants often cite public safety as a major concern, thinking of historical events like Fukushima and Chernobyl. The effective safety of nuclear power plants is vital to their success, and while there will always be more risk involved than with solar power, the costs do not outweigh the benefits. That is why the Union of Concerned Scientists, a longtime critic of nuclear energy, is finally giving it the serious consideration it deserves. They correctly mention the vital importance of the NRC in making sure that these plants operate safely and effectively, and that America’s energy future has to include nuclear power to meet its climate goals.

Many on the left frequently point to European countries as respective models of how the U.S. should conduct its political business, but in this instance, they are forgoing that strategy. France is a beacon of clean energy on a national scale, with minimal need for carbon-heavy energy methods like fossil fuels. France is the largest exporter of electricity in the world, and it is largely because it has 58 nuclear power plants that generate about 76% of the country’s energy at low costs. Thanks to that nuclear energy, France has the lowest carbon emissions per capita of any developed nation. The U.S. should follow France’s example by continuing to invest and believe in nuclear energy, rather than writing it off.

In addition to building new plants for the future, the nuclear power plants that we already have should be maintained and kept open. Within the next 5 to 10 years, more than one in three nuclear power plants are at risk of being closed because they aren’t profitable. If this happens, our CO2 emissions from the energy sector could increase as much as 4-6%. To make nuclear power and other forms of renewable energy more competitive in the marketplace, the market must be allowed to work. This means that costly, anti-free market energy subsidies that create an unbalanced playing field must end. We should be striving for a level playing field for all forms of clean energy, which includes nuclear power plants. We should be working to keep these facilities open as they continue to produce emissions-free energy while continuing the fight for opening new facilities across the country both to generate nuclear energy and safely dispose of nuclear waste.

Thankfully, some in our government have realized the necessity of continuing to develop nuclear energy. The President recently signed S.512, “The Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act.” This bipartisan legislation, which directs the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to create a regulatory environment that allows for the development of advanced nuclear reactors, was signed into law on January 14th. Among the list of 18 co-sponsors are Democratic senators Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) and Joe Manchin (WV), while the list of Republican co-sponsors includes James Inhofe (OK) and Deb Fischer (NE). It also requires the NRC to make regular reports to Congress on the development and licensing processes of the growth of nuclear facilities and on the proper management of uranium. This law should not be ignored or merely swept under the rug because it represents the capability of Congress to work across the aisle to solve America’s energy problems.

To move away from fossil fuels in order to lower our CO2 emissions, the United States simply cannot afford to disregard an emissions-free source of energy that currently produces 20% of our nation’s electricity. We should not see nuclear as our only clean energy alternative to fossil fuels, as other sources such as wind, solar, and hydropower are likely to play a critical role on our path to becoming free from fossil fuels as well. But at the same time, in a space where carbon emissions reduction is essential, it would be foolish to respond by ignoring the importance of a clean power source like nuclear energy.

Spencer McLaughlin