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It Is Time For Progressives To Embrace Nuclear Power

Amid rising concerns over climate change, nuclear energy provides a clean, sustainable solution

The Isar nuclear power plant, Germany

Our ongoing energy debate is, in the words of Vox’s David Roberts, “one of the core challenges facing humanity in the 21st century.”

As climate change becomes an ever more pressing policy issue, finding a source of energy that is clean and sustainable, while simultaneously not being prohibitively expensive and detrimental to the global economy, is imperative. Nuclear energy, while maligned by much of the public, especially progressives and climate activists, has neither of those issues to the degree that fossil fuels and other renewable energies do, respectively. Progressives who are serious about reducing carbon emissions and adhering to landmark climate change initiatives such as the Paris Agreement, which stipulates a 5 percent reduction in emissions from 2000 levels, ought to give a serious look to nuclear power as an energy source.

The Utility of Nuclear Energy

Nuclear power is one of the cleanest available energy sources. Its carbon footprint, for instance, is significantly lower in comparison to many other energy sources currently utilized. Nuclear power plants emit one-tenth the rate of greenhouse gasses (41 grams per kilowatt hour) compared to natural gas. Additionally, nuclear plants emit at a rate approximately 25 times lower than coal. The rate of emissions for nuclear energy also takes into account all the associated activities of the plant, including the plant’s construction as well its ongoing waste treatment and storage. Though nuclear’s rate is higher than those for solar and wind-based energy, it comes in at far lower than fossil fuels.

We must also consider nuclear energy’s sustainability as an energy source, as well as its ability to generate massive amounts of power consistently. At present, clean renewables such as solar and wind cannot reliably produce mass amounts of energy consistently in the way nuclear power can. For these renewables, the amount of energy they’re capable of producing naturally depends on the weather, a factor largely out of our control.

Yet our nuclear reserves are not subject to the same limitations. While uranium is not renewable in the way solar and hydro-based energies are, it is nevertheless entirely sustainable. That’s because, at current usage rates, there are sufficient uranium supplies to last thousands of years. And this is assuming operational capacities of more traditional nuclear power plants, which are not as energy-efficient as their newer counterparts, which utilize a fraction of the uranium.

The efficiency of nuclear power relative to other clean energy sources.

Case Studies: France and Australia

France provides a useful case study for skeptical progressives to consider. Nuclear power currently accounts for nearly three-fourths of the country’s overall electricity production. The remainder of France’s energy supply is provided by renewables such as solar and wind energy. As a result of this combination of energy sources, France has a remarkably high level of energy security. It has plentiful reserves of cheap and reliable energy which is clean and environmentally friendly. In fact, its energy surplus is such that it earns about 3 billion euros per year in energy exports.

From an economic standpoint, therefore, once nuclear power is up and running, it makes a remarkably sound pragmatic case for itself. The cost of producing nuclear energy is much lower than the cost of producing energy from coal, gas, oil, or other renewables.

In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, France’s record once it transitioned to high nuclear use is also very strong: since the 1970s, greenhouse gas emissions in France have gone down at a rate of about 2 percent per year. To this day, rates of greenhouse gas emissions remain low in France, largely as a result of the nation’s reliance on nuclear as a power source.

Currently, virtually every G20 nation, with the exception of Australia, utilizes nuclear power in some form. The fact that Australia has not pursued nuclear in any capacity is especially peculiar given the amount of uranium available in the country. Quite simply, public fears and political inertia have kept nuclear off the table for several decades. Even as energy prices have soared in recent years and the nation’s capital cities have endured blackouts during the summer season, public sentiment on the issue has not budged.

A major stumbling block on this issue in Australia has been the question of where to store nuclear waste. Proponents of nuclear power have long argued that there are ample potential storage sites in the vast Australian outback. The states and territories, however, have all resisted the move, arguing other states should house the waste from any nuclear power plants. Most recently, the state of South Australia, after exploring the issue, declined to go ahead with a proposed nuclear storage site in July of 2017.

Australia would benefit greatly from adding nuclear to its range of energy sources, tapping into large uranium reserves. Doing so would also make meeting its obligations toward reducing carbon emissions, in line with the Paris climate agreement, much more tenable.

Potential Dangers

It would be remiss to ignore the risks nuclear power poses. The memory of the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters, in 1986 and 2011, respectively, are still fresh in people’s minds. Understandably, the possibility of a repeat disaster on this scale makes, for many, any argument supporting nuclear power automatically untenable, regardless of the myriad benefits it can bring. On the occasions where plants suffer a meltdown, the effects are comparatively worse than they are for coal-powered plants. The meltdowns of the Three Mile Island plant in the United States, Fukushima in Japan, and — especially — Chernobyl in Ukraine have been catastrophic.

A good case can be made, however, that the above represent isolated cases, visible outliers for the otherwise benign and safe source of power that is nuclear energy. Given the improved design standards of modern power plants, the likelihood of a plant suffering a comparable disaster has been meaningfully reduced. The plants in Three Mile Island, Fukushima, and Chernobyl each had meltdowns due to impediments in their cooling systems, which were based on electric pumps that regulated the flow of water to the system. Modern plants are gravity based, using elevated storage tanks in which to drain cooling water. As a result of this change, major incidents have been reduced exponentially.

One could also cite, as another one of nuclear energy’s drawbacks, all the associated waste it produces. The very idea of nuclear waste generates the sort of popular disapproval that significantly jeopardizes nuclear energy’s political prospects. In addition to this widespread revulsion, there are environmental dangers associated with the disposal of nuclear waste. Given that nuclear waste remains radioactive for up to 10,000 years, those handling it are tasked with storing the waste in a safe and secure manner. With that said, as radioactivity diminishes over time, the existence of highly radioactive waste is far less pervasive than conventionally assumed.

Is Nuclear Power Too Costly?

Yet another argument leveled against nuclear power is its cost. Building a plant is not cheap, and the cost of generating power is prohibitively high. This is partly why nuclear energy has been in decline in the United States.

Yet what’s interesting is this may be a function of U.S. plants being several decades old and, as a consequence, using outdated techniques to extract energy.

In the past few years, several plants have already been decommissioned, while the operators of other plants have indicated that they will not renew their licenses when they expire over the next several years.

Modern technological and engineering advances in the building of nuclear power plants are addressing the issues surrounding the startup costs of building a plant, as well as the costs associated with generating the power itself. For example, NuScale Power has proposed a nuclear plant design which is much smaller, safer, and cheaper to build. By scaling down the size of the plant and simplifying its design, NuScale plants are more cost-effective in both initial and ongoing operational phases, clearing one of the biggest hurdles for governments and private businesses to settle on nuclear.

A recent report by the nonpartisan International Energy Agency has also backed the idea of smaller plants, known as Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) as a way of addressing the startup cost issue currently affecting the production of new nuclear plants.

No energy source can serve as a panacea for all the energy and climate problems facing the planet — nuclear included. Ideally, nuclear energy would be utilized alongside other forms of clean, renewable energy as traditional fossil fuels are phased out. Nuclear power as an energy source could assist greatly in this transitional period. It is important for progressives to recognize this.

At this moment, and for the foreseeable future, the cost of adopting renewable energy as a predominant source of power is prohibitively high. Furthermore, were this to occur, the majority of the financial burden would be placed on the most vulnerable, still-developing nations of the world, which is hardly a progressive, forward-thinking outcome. An uptake in the adoption of nuclear power represents an ideal compromise which recognizes economic reality all the while making a serious effort to combat climate change.

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