Nuclear power should be part of energy mix in fighting climate change
The climate is in crisis. The recent IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 Degrees Celsius says we need to cut CO2 emissions dramatically by 2030 to avoid the worst effects of global warming. Much of that CO2 is the result of burning fossil fuels, which still account for over 80 percent of our global energy mix, yet we are burning more each year. The effects of these emissions are already evident and growing worse, with sobering impacts like record-breaking temps, melting polar ice and ocean acidification.
Last Thursday, a Green New Deal resolution was introduced in the U.S. House. This sweeping policy proposal includes addressing global warming and much more. Though the effort to bring the issue of climate change to the forefront of our national debate is welcome and the energy, passion, commitment and optimism of the many people involved is inspiring, many Green New Deal backers hope to exclude our biggest and best tools for reducing emissions.
While the text of the resolution appears to include all clean energy, a recent open letter to legislators signed by 626 organizations states that we must transition our power generation to 100 percent renewable energy. The letter's definition of renewable energy excludes large hydroelectric and nuclear generation, yet nuclear and hydro are the very energy sources that have been used to successfully decarbonize large-grid electric generation.
France, Norway, Sweden, Ontario, Costa Rica and Uruguay have transitioned their energy generation to low carbon sources and each did so using nuclear or hydro technologies. (See electricitymap.org to graphically view sources of world electricity generation.) No large electrical grid has ever been transitioned without them. Based on this experience, it would make more sense to focus first on these already-successful clean energy sources rather than excluding them.
Excluding nuclear is particularly puzzling to me, because nuclear energy gives us everything we value about energy sources:
• Nuclear energy is clean, with lifetime CO2 emissions comparable to wind.
• Its environmental impact is small, with low land use requirements and zero operational emissions.
• It is reliable and largely not affected by weather (something we should be thankful for given the recent polar vortex). Most nuclear plants run at 100 percent capacity well over 90 percent of the time.
• It is economical -- energy costs over life of a nuclear plant are both predictable and competitive.
• The materials requirements per unit of generating capacity for nuclear are low.
• It can be deployed rapidly.
• It produces the least amount of waste, which is responsibly captured and safely managed.
• It is one of our safest forms of energy production.
• It is available now, and we can realize the full benefits without the significant delay and expense of (for example) still-developing storage technology or smart grid upgrades.
Given the challenge of decarbonizing, it makes no sense to exclude nuclear. If the climate is in crisis, we need all hands on deck. We cannot afford to ignore a technology with this type of track record.
The Green New Deal resolution has the potential to push us, as a society, out of the climate change discussion and into climate change action. We need that push to continue for more and bolder action. However, we also need to be pragmatic and use science, data and history to guide our choices.
Science has given us many tools to help us slow the warming of our planet. We must be open to using all of these.
Based on the data we have, most models tell us that without nuclear, our chances of making fast and significant reductions in our emissions are much lower. Self-imposed restrictions on our energy choices will make decarbonization that much harder.
And, our history and experience would guide us to focus significant resources on the things that we know will work, even while exploring and developing new alternatives. If the countries mentioned earlier can do it, so can the U.S.
The Green New Deal resolution calls for bold action. Attaining its goals will require the best tools we have and we should not just allow, but lead with nuclear energy. It's the best tool in the box.
Alan Medsker, of Arlington Heights, is a member of the American Nuclear Society and state coordinator for Environmental Progress Illinois.