Nuclear power is used to produce energy that’s both reliable and clean. Why aren’t we using more of it?
Consider this thought experiment. What would the climate change debate look like if nuclear power was invented tomorrow? Imagine if humanity had only used fossil fuels and renewables up to this point, and an engineering visionary revealed that split atoms could be used to generate clean power. That’s the hypothetical posed to me by Dietmar Detering, a German entrepreneur living in New York.
“I’m sure we’d develop the hell out of it,” he said, before sighing. “We’re looking at a different world right now.”
Detering thinks nuclear energy could be the key to solving the climate crisis. A former member of Germany’s Green Party, Detering now spends his spare time as co-chair of the Nuclear New York advocacy group. He’s part of a wave of environmentalists campaigning for more nuclear energy.
Though the word evokes images of landscapes pulverized by atomic calamity — Hiroshima, Chernobyl, Fukushima — proponents like Detering and his colleague Eric Dawson point out that nuclear power produces huge amounts of electricity while emitting next to no carbon.
This separates it from fossil fuels, which are consistent but dirty, and renewables, which are clean but weather dependent. Contrary to their apocalyptic reputation, nuclear power plants are relatively safe. Coal power is estimated to kill around 350 times as many people per terawatt-hour of energy produced, mostly from air pollution, compared to nuclear power.
“Any energy policy has pros and cons, and we feel, after putting a lot of scrutiny on it, that the pros outweigh the cons of nuclear energy,” said Dawson, a grassroots campaigner at Nuclear New York.
It’s a contentious statement. Many scientists and environmentalists say nuclear power is prohibitively dangerous and expensive, that plants take too long to build. “Better to expand renewable energy or energy saving, that is a better use of money in terms of climate change mitigation,” says Jusen Asuka, director at the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies in Kanagawa, Japan.
But many scientists and experts believe nuclear power is necessary to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Governments around the world have declared intentions to reach net zero carbon emissions, most recently at the COP26 UN climate summit, but few have charted clear courses. Some argue that clean, reliable electricity produced in nuclear plants should be part of the solution.
This second camp mourns the decline of nuclear power, which has steepened since the 2011 meltdown at Fukushima. The International Energy Agency estimates the developed world is on track to lose 66% of its current nuclear capacity by 2040. In the US, where nuclear power produces nearly 40% of the country’s low-carbon power, 11 reactors have been decommissioned since 2013 — and nine more will soon join them.
The most recent retirement was Indian Point Energy Center, which formerly produced 25% of the electricity used by 10 million New Yorkers. One reactor was shut last year and the second followed on April 30. The result? Higher emissions as the electricity gap is filled by natural gas.
“The whole goal that everybody’s talking about is to increase zero emission electricity, yet they are shutting down the source of the vast majority of zero emission electricity,” said Dawson. “So this drives us insane.”
To be sure, there are risks.
Meltdowns, while rarer than once-in-a-generation, have cataclysmic consequences. And the question of how to best store nuclear waste is contentious: The US invested $9 billion in building a storage site at Yucca Mountain before abandoning the project, though Finland, France and Canada have found potential solutions. (The US also toyed with launching nuclear waste into the sun. Those plans have also been abandoned.)
As a result, nuclear power’s reputation is among its biggest hurdles. In the public imagination, nuclear power presages disaster. But the numbers tell a different story. Estimates of deaths from nuclear incidents range from less than 10,000 to around 1 million. As you can infer, it’s a highly contested number — but in either case dwarfed by the death toll from fossil fuel pollution. Around 8.7 million premature deaths were caused by fossil fuel pollution in 2018 alone, according to a February Harvard study.
Bill Gates, when asked if nuclear energy was a solution to climate change, responded: “If people were rational, yes.”
The PR problem is understandable. Thirteen years before the first American nuclear power plant opened, the same technology was used to devastate Hiroshima and Nagasaki. No one appreciated the black cloud hanging over atomic power more than President Dwight Eisenhower, who accompanied the rollout of nuclear electricity with a marketing blitz. “This greatest of destructive forces can be developed into a great boon, for the benefit of all mankind,” he promised in his now famous Atoms for Peace speech.
So alluring was the promise of cheap, clean energy that 11 countries had built nuclear reactors by 1970, with hundreds more commissioned for development. The newly created Atomic Energy Commission expected the US alone to be running over 1,000 reactors by 2000. But it was not to be. Forty years later, there are an estimated 440 nuclear reactors running — globally.
There are three key reasons for nuclear’s decline since the ’70s. Environmental groups, fearful of nuclear meltdowns and weapon proliferation, began lobbying governments to stop building new power plants. In the US, the result was rafts of new safety regulations that made building and operating plants two to three times more costly.