Does Nuclear Belong in Serious Climate Plans?

IAEA experts at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Unit 4, 2013

By Chloe McGlynn, Rachel Carson Council Stanback Intern in Communications

Nuclear power poses great risks to both public and environmental health, yet it continues to be cited as a leading “clean” energy solution in the federal conversation on climate change. Over the past few months, The New York Times and The Washington Post ran climate policy surveys that highlight nuclear energy as one of the most divisive subjects amongst the many 2020 Democratic candidates. How the next administration decides to invest in energy infrastructure could completely alter the course of the climate future. Looked at carefully, however, nuclear energy production, is neither emissions-free nor renewable. Understanding nuclear power is critical to engaging with the continuing public debate and to challenging candidates’ environmental policies as they continue to take shape.


Last updated on June 13th, the Post‘s survey questioned candidates on their support of nuclear power plant expansion. 7 of the 23 candidates responded positively, while 10 exhibited doubts and 6 provided no response. Senator Cory Booker (NJ) says he supports “next-generation advanced nuclear reactors” and that “our best chance to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees is by investing in a wide range of zero emission, clean energy alternatives.” Such statements that lump nuclear energy together with renewable resources like solar and wind are misguided as they do not take into account the life-cycle carbon emissions (or exposure to radiation) of uranium mining and production. Former Maryland representative John Delaney was even more bold in his assertion that, “if you’re serious about fighting climate change you have to be pro-nuclear energy.”

In a more cautionary response, Governor Jay Inslee (WA), the only candidate whose entire campaign is based on mitigating climate change, says that, “in order to support new development of nuclear energy, we would first have to solve critical challenges that do not yet have solutions.” While Inslee’s statement is vague on the details of which “challenges” accompany nuclear energy production, he adds a critical caveat to the pro-nuclear argument. Alternatively, Senator Bernie Sanders (VT) vows to “stop the building of new nuclear power plants and find a real solution to our existing nuclear waste problem.” With such disparity in positions across the Democratic candidates, it becomes absolutely necessary to understand the nuance behind the nuclear problem, and why it is not the silver bullet solution many tout it to be.

Like biofuels, nuclear energy is praised for its potential as a “clean energy” resource — a hopeful alternative to coal and oil as many state and local governments attempt to transition away from fossil fuels. On June 17th, USA Today released an article claiming that in order to cut greenhouse emissions to zero by 2050, “we will need not only the nuclear power we have now, but much more of it. Because nuclear, like wind, solar, hydro (dams), and geothermal, produces no emissions.” The zero-emissions argument is misleading because it refers only to the nuclear fission process itself — the step in production that translates uranium-released energy into electricity. But throughout the production process, from the mining of uranium, to site construction, fuel processing and waste management, carbon emissions occur at every point. A Beyond Nuclear report from 2016 shows that nuclear energy’s life-cycle carbon output is more than double that of solar, and is six times greater than emissions from wind farms. For every dollar spent on nuclear, five or six times as much carbon could have been saved with wind power. Even if the Democratic candidates’ proposed policies view nuclear plants’ life-cycle carbon emissions as negligible relative to the coal and oil industries, nuclear still doesn’t stack up to its renewable counterparts.

With the construction and operation of new nuclear facilities, the probability of catastrophic accidents increases, endangering nearby people and their environment. If there were to be an issue with a plant and insufficient renewable energy infrastructure were in place to make up for the loss, a large-scale power crisis could occur. Nuclear plants act as a form of baseload energy, so one major outage could result in the failure of an entire section of the energy grid. Investment in nuclear power plants impedes the development of more reliable and distributable energy sources, like wind or solar, because it reinforces a reliance on these baseload power plants. In 2015, National Geographic highlighted this issue when they identified 13 US nuclear power plants at risk of submersion due to rising sea levels. An accident like that could mean another Fukushima or Three Mile Island event. Their investigation also noted other pressing dangers to these plants — receding rivers and increasing temperatures in the water supply. Massive amounts of cold water are necessary to keep reactors from overheating and leading to disastrous power outages.

Amongst some presidential candidates, there is excitement about new technologies and a more sustainable future for nuclear energy. Senator Booker is not alone in his interest in a new generation of reactors — U.S. representatives Seth Moulton, Eric Swalwell and Michael Bennett all express optimism about the potential of advanced nuclear technology, citing fusion energy as an untapped resource. Joe Biden’s climate plan, released on June 4th, includes intentions to increase research and development into, “small modular nuclear reactors at half the construction cost of today’s reactors.” SMRs do not require water as a reactor coolant and, due to their smaller design, could operate in areas off the main electric grid, providing energy to remote towns away from bodies of water. The industry, still in its infancy stages, developed as a response to the phase out of aging nuclear power plants. Despite their potential, SMRs need further research and investment before they can become predominant methods of nuclear power. And, as a climate solution, huge numbers would need to be deployed to even make a dent in carbon emissions.

Another option, nuclear fusion, “could deliver more energy more safely and with far less harmful radioactive waste than fission, but just a small number of people…have managed to build [functional] nuclear fusion reactors.” Even the World Nuclear Association recognizes that while fusion energy is an opportunity to have an inexhaustible energy resource, at present it is faced with, “insurmountable engineering challenges.” Given the pressing need for the United States to cut carbon-emissions significantly by 2030, the hope for new nuclear technologies could distract from necessary expansion of renewable resources when included in legislative climate plans. Fusion energy and SMRs may look promising, but even the most optimistic scenarios for climate change don’t allow the time to develop such new, speculative technologies. It is imperative that immediate steps are taken now to resolve the issues of aging nuclear plants and to invest money in large-scale solar, wind, and hydro, energy efficiency, and energy storing technologies. With the expansion of existing renewable resources, there can be faster and more reliable progress toward building a zero-emissions energy infrastructure.

Moving forward, not only presidential candidates and their nuclear agendas deserve scrutiny. State governments are passing climate plans in droves, and nuclear energy is a key point in many of them. Recently, New York announced the most ambitious state-led climate plan to date, pledging to pull all its electricity from carbon-free resources by 2040. The New York Times details the Empire State’s new bill as one that “requires New York to get 70 percent of its electricity from renewable sources like wind, solar and hydropower by 2030 and shift entirely to carbon-free power a decade later.” However, not every state is choosing to move away from their aging nuclear power plants.

Three weeks before New York’s announcement, New Jersey and Maryland passed less proactive legislation, bills that support the continued use and taxpayer subsidizing of aging nuclear power plants. Other state governments, like Washington, Minnesota and Wisconsin, have also designed “clean energy” plans that support nuclear infrastructure as a power source.

Such initiatives are inadequate in their aims to cut carbon emissions, and this is especially evident when they’re considered next to a recent climate action plan in Illinois – a state that historically has received the majority of its energy from nuclear plants. Despite its current reliance on nuclear power, Illinois has ordered a shift to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050 – an ambitious move that will exclude nuclear power and harmful biofuels from further development. The desire for the most efficient and effective climate action is present, as evidenced by Illinois’ environmental revolution. If pressured by their constituencies, U.S. state governments can follow suit with Illinois, Hawaii, California and the District of Columbia in pushing for a renewable and nuclear-free future.

The promise of nuclear energy has long been that of a silver bullet for our energy needs, but repeatedly the reality has proven to be far less safe or certain. The next president will have immense influence over how the United States addresses the climate crisis. While many of the candidates’ opinions on nuclear energy remain ambiguous, we must ensure that they all embrace serious climate solutions and truly renewable energy resources. Nuclear power is not the answer.