To Cut Carbon Emissions, Take the Nuclear Option

Nuclear energy is vital to helping America meet its commitments to combat climate change.

Last December, the United States joined 195 other countries in making a historic commitment to combat global climate change. The Paris agreement (often called “COP 21”) commits countries to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, while giving each country the flexibility it needs to reduce emissions through its own mix of policies and technologies. President Obama has called the agreement “the best chance we have to save the one planet that we’ve got.”

In the last seven years, the U.S. has made significant progress in curbing its carbon emissions. Use of coal has declined rapidly since its 2008 peak, thanks largely to America’s boom in natural gas, which emits about half as much carbon dioxide as coal. Meanwhile, thanks in part to funding under the 2009 Recovery Act, the price of renewable energy has fallen dramatically, and solar and wind power are increasingly cost-competitive with coal and gas.

But there is another technology that is equally vital to helping the U.S. meet its COP 21 commitments: nuclear energy. In the first five months of 2015, nuclear power produced 20 percent of America’s electricity – by comparison, solar, wind and hydropower combined produced 13 percent.

The International Energy Agency has argued that there is no chance of keeping global temperature increases below an acceptable threshold unless the number of nuclear plants in the world more than doubles by 2050. American leadership is critical in expanding use of this key carbon-free technology.

While renewable energy is an important part of the solution to climate change, the experience of Germany shows that trying to go from fossil fuels to renewables without nuclear can be costly and counterproductive. In 2011, less than three months after a tsunami led to an accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan, Germany decided to phase out all of its nuclear plants by 2022. By late 2014, however, the New York Times reported that Germany’s coal dependence was “the highest in nearly 25 years.” The shift away from nuclear has also coincided with a rise in Germany’s average industrial electricity cost, which in 2014 was more than two and half times that of the U.S., even as U.S. carbon emissions were falling.

Furthermore, while renewables do not emit greenhouse gases, using them on a large scale can still impact the environment. The Solar Electric Generating System in Ivanpah, California, for example, takes up 3,500 acres, and some of that land had to be cleared of endangered animals before the facility could be finished. The Breakthrough Institute, an Oakland, California-based energy and environment think tank, calculated that a “twin pack” of nuclear small modular reactors (SMRs), could produce a comparable amount of energy, far more reliably, on a mere 38 acres.

Although public opinion is often skeptical about the safety of nuclear power, those concerns are not widely shared by the scientific community. A January 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center compared public perceptions of major scientific questions, including nuclear energy, with the opinions of professional scientists. Sixty-five percent of scientists surveyed favored building more nuclear power plants, compared to 45 percent of the public as a whole. Addressing public skepticism will be critical for nuclear advocates.

Unfortunately, some media coverage of Fukushima has fed pervasive misconceptions. The Breakthrough Institute has noted the attention given to a flawed 2015 study claiming to find a very high rate of thyroid cancer among children near the Fukushima plant – even though such fears of thyroid cancer had already been debunked by a 2013 study. And, as Martin Freer, a nuclear physicist at the University of Birmingham in England, pointed out in 2012, “It was the tsunami, caused by the largest earthquake ever to strike Japan,” not the meltdown at the plant, that resulted in more than 16,000 deaths and the damage to or destruction of roughly 125,000 buildings. Expert voices like Freer’s will be vital in the years ahead.

Fortunately, the Obama administration recognizes that nuclear energy must be part America’s response to a warming planet. Last year, the Department of Energy established the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN), a hub where universities, businesses and government agencies researching nuclear energy can find experts, materials, facilities, and information. The department also recently announced cost-sharing arrangements with two energy companies, X-energy and Southern Company, to develop advanced reactors. And also later this month, the Advanced Nuclear Summit and Showcase in Washington, DC., co-sponsored by the Idaho, Argonne, and Oak Ridge National Laboratories and the think tank Third Way, will showcase a range of advanced reactor designs that could greatly improve upon older reactors in terms of construction costs, waste disposal, and proliferation concerns.

As research proceeds, and the safest and most efficient reactors are developed and deployed, the U.S. can play a leading role in reaching the goals of COP 21 through carbon-free energy. For the sake of the planet, this technology deserves public support.

Michael Purzycki

Michael Purzycki is a public policy researcher and writer based in Somerset, New Jersey.