Published On: Fri, May 24th, 2019

We Can’t Solve Climate Change Without Nuclear Power

Sixty-five years ago, President Eisenhower took the first concrete steps toward implementing his “Atoms for Peace” initiative, presenting Soviet leaders with a detailed outline of the safety and nonproliferation rules that should guide the peaceful development of civilian nuclear energy.

Three more years of determined U.S.-led diplomacy culminated in the establishment of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which continues to be pivotal in maintaining, monitoring and enforcing global nonproliferation safeguards—so that, in Ike’s words, “this greatest of destructive forces can be developed into a great boon, for the benefit of all mankind.

The existential threat of nuclear annihilation did not go away when the Cold War ended, and now we face a second existential threat from climate change. In the face of these twin threats, American nuclear leadership is as critical in 2019 as it was in 1954. 

Nuclear energy is the largest source of carbon-free energy in the U.S. by a huge margin and it has a major role to play in confronting the global climate challenge. But we must also be vigilant about the prospect of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists or rogue regimes. 

The threat of nuclear proliferation abroad should not lead us to abandon nuclear energy at home. Indeed, American nuclear leadership has always been critical to guiding the safe, responsible use of civilian nuclear energy around the world. 

For example, a number of American companies are developing advanced generation-reactor technologies that offer a host of safety and nonproliferation advantages. These advanced designs would have “walk away” safety, meaning they do not need any backup power or external cooling systems in the event of an accident. And since many of the new reactor designs would rarely if ever need to be refueled, the risk of diversion of fuel from uranium-enrichment or plutonium-reprocessing plants to a bomb program would be greatly diminished. 

The U.S. should lead the way in the development of these reactors so they can be deployed at home and abroad over the next decade. As a growing number of countries around the world turn to nuclear power as a source of carbon-free electricity, it is strongly in our interest that they do so with safe, American-made technology. Countries that adopt the new U.S. reactor designs will also be subject to U.S. nonproliferation requirements, which are second to none. 

We must also confront the challenge posed by countries like North Korea, which has nuclear weapons, and Iran, which has sought to develop them. There is no substitute for tough diplomacy, backed by a unified international community willing to exercise its leverage—through sanctions or ultimately military means, if necessary—to persuade these nations to give up their weapons in a transparent and verifiable way. Here again, America’s technical expertise in building, operating and fueling reactors informs and strengthens our ability to design enforceable nonproliferation agreements and effective verification measures to detect and respond to violations. 

American leadership in nuclear technologies is equally important when it comes to the climate challenge. It has been three years since the Paris Climate Agreement and the world is already falling far short of its collective commitments to reduce carbon emissions. Even if all nations achieved 100 percent of the reductions they pledged in Paris, the world would not come anywhere near the goal of limiting temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels, much less the 1.5-degree target that scientists say we must achieve if we are, for example, to save the earth’s coral reefs. Projected increases in renewable power and plans to invest in carbon-capture technologies, efficiency measures, reforestation and other steps are important but will not get us there.

That is why the International Energy Agency has concluded that meeting the goal of 2 degrees C will require doubling nuclear power’s contribution to global energy consumption by mid-century. Late last year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reached a similar conclusion: in most scenarios consistent with the target of 1.5 degrees C, nuclear energy would have to more than double.

In the end, we do not need statistical models to know that nuclear must be on the table. Common sense tells us that if we are facing an existential crisis, every available zero-carbon technology must be called into service. Scaling the mountain in front of us is daunting enough without tying one hand behind our back. 

The 98 reactors in our nuclear fleet are the workhorse of the clean-energy sector. They provide one fifth of our electricity. Unfortunately, over the past few years six reactors have been prematurely shut down, and another 12 are set to close in the next seven years.

The problem is that the rules governing wholesale electricity markets do not allow the unique advantages of nuclear power to be reflected in the wholesale price, effectively putting new and existing nuclear plants at a disadvantage. These rules were written decades ago to deliver some things we want (low prices and excess capacity to meet spikes in demand) but not other things we want (clean air, lower carbon emissions and grid reliability). 

Nuclear plants are not only emissions-free and carbon-free, they are by far the most reliable assets in our power generation mix, operating 93 percent of the time—even during extreme weather events when some fossil fuel plants may be forced to shut down or curtail their operations. Under current rules, electricity markets are not allowed to value these attributes, even though they are clearly valuable. 

Republicans and Democrats in states like Illinois, New York and New Jersey have taken action to establish “zero-emission credits” so the markets better reflect the value of carbon-free energy like nuclear and renewables. But state solutions are an imperfect substitute for what should be federal, nationwide action to reform these markets. 

Preserving existing reactors may not sound exciting, but it is a critical first step if we take the climate challenge seriously. Consider that for every reactor that prematurely shuts down, our carbon dioxide emissions rise by about 5.8 million metric tons per year. According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Greenhouse Equivalencies Calculator, that equals the emissions from burning more than 648 million gallons of gasoline—the equivalent of filling up an NFL stadium with gasoline and setting it on fire. To offset those carbon emissions, we would need to plant over 95 million trees. Or we could install solar panels on one million homes and figure out a cost-effective way of storing the electricity so it is available day and night. 

But that is just to break even and does not move us past the starting line. Instead of swapping one source of zero-emission power for another, wouldn’t it be better to combine all available sources of low- and no-carbon energy to maximize our emissions reductions? The only way to do that is through a public-private partnership. 

This kind of partnership can succeed only over a sustained period, which requires a strong foundation of support across a broad political spectrum. The good news about nuclear energy is that those who care about climate change may support it on environmental grounds while those who care about U.S. global influence may support it for other reasons. Remember that apart from generating power to light homes, drive industrial manufacturing and reduce carbon emissions, the U.S. needs a robust nuclear industry to support its national security. This includes building, operating, sustaining and fueling our aircraft carriers and fast-attack and nuclear-armed submarines. 

In the 1950s, Admiral Hyman Rickover’s redoubtable efforts to establish a nuclear navy led directly to a commercial nuclear power industry in the U.S., beginning with the Shippingport reactor in 1957. Today the Pentagon’s need for reliable power can help drive demand for nuclear energy and defray its costs. 

It is telling that despite the polarized politics of the day, two bills promoting U.S. leadership in nuclear energy passed Congress last year and were signed into law (the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act, or NEICA, and the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act, or NEIMA). 

Together, public and private partners can drive a new generation of smaller, cheaper, safer nuclear reactors that satisfy the world’s growing energy demands while lowering carbon emissions and reducing proliferation risks. 

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We Can’t Solve Climate Change Without Nuclear Power