By Gary S. Was and Todd R. Allen
The goal for protecting the climate is simple. Stop putting carbon into the atmosphere and remove the carbon already added. If the “climate crisis is the greatest challenge facing the world today” as Todd Larsen argues, why would we not use all available tools to protect the climate?
Larsen’s arguments against nuclear energy are fundamentally unchanged from those of the 1970s, but the nearly fifty years of operating experience have proven him wrong. In fact, as noted in Our World in Data,1 the mortality risk from nuclear is no greater than that from solar, wind, or other renewables. Nuclear energy is a proven technology, providing 55 percent of U.S. zero carbon electricity today, while renew- able technologies are just starting to scale up, with wind and solar combining to provide less than 4 percent of energy generation.2 We need modern arguments.
Larsen’s arguments against nuclear energy are fundamentally unchanged from those of the 1970s, but the nearly 50 years of operating experience have proven him wrong.
Addressing climate change requires the collective action of entire communities, all moving toward a common goal, similar to a nineteenth-century barn raising. We could build a barn using only screwdrivers, deciding in advance that saws have sharp teeth and therefore are too much of a risk to use. Of course, we would not, since saws are very useful in ways that screwdrivers are not. The barn would be built most efficiently by recognizing the benefits and respecting the risks of each tool. The barn analogy is purposeful since converting to a 100 percent zero carbon energy system will require a huge infrastructure transition. So what actually matters?
Time to Implement
The time required to make new clean energy available is critical, not only to address climate change broadly, but to ameliorate the negative health effects due to air pollution that fall disproportionately on minority communities. Recent attempts to build large nuclear powered electricity generation facilities in the West have gone over time and budget, notably in France, Finland, and the United States, but nuclear can be built rapidly. The United States placed ninety-five gigawatts of nuclear capacity online between 1970 and 1990.3 France built fifty-six reactors in fifteen years in the 1970s and 1980s. China started thirty-five new reactors between 2009 and 2018. This decade’s new generation of reactors are scheduled to adopt a standard design and modular construction process to reduce both cost and time to build.
A great advantage of wind and solar and hydro is that the fuel is free. One limit though, is that the energy shows up in a specific location and at a specific time which may not correlate with the energy need. Transmission is needed. On average it can take ten years or more to build a high-voltage transmission line, including planning, mapping, environmental review, public comment, project approval and permits, land acquisition, and construction.4 A recent McKinsey report shows that Germany’s build-out of transmission lines to support its clean energy transition, targeted for 2020, was expected to finish seventeen years late.5 For renewables to provide 100 percent of the country’s electrical energy demand will require large-scale storage and a superconducting electrical grid, both of which will take considerable time. History has shown that the growth of a new energy source to the point at which it becomes substantial is not measured in years, but in decades.6,7
A transition to zero carbon energy that is faster than historical trends depends on our ability to design, approve, site, and build major infrastructure projects expeditiously. This limitation affects all zero carbon sources in different ways. Creating ways to generate support for the equitable and expeditious construction of large infrastructure will be critical across all zero carbon sources. We need to increase our investment in rebuilding our manufacturing base and the skill to execute large infrastructure projects.
Building out the massive infrastructure needed to transition to a renewables-intensive, zero carbon system will require public support. A Pew study in 2016 showed that 80 to 90 percent of the public supported deploying wind and solar. This was twice the support for more established technologies like nuclear, coal mining, fracking, and offshore drilling.8
It does though come with a caution. In 1973, early in the commercial deployment of nuclear energy, public support was 80 percent but gradually dropped to a relatively constant 50 per- cent since 2000.9 Every energy production technology that has been in use at significant scale sees a drop in public favorability with increased usage. As the public learns more about the limitations of an energy source, and the limits on its perceived advantages, they lose some of the initial enthusiasm. Maintaining public support for developing renewable technologies will be critical to shifting to zero car- bon energy sources, but it will not be easy.
While the arguments about the best pathways to clean energy tend to focus on technology attributes, we have traditionally overlooked the impact of socio-technical sciences, specifically understanding what influences choices and sup- port. We need to increase our investment in the social sciences of energy deployment.
The current low prices for wind and solar were driven by the adoption of portfolio standards, feed-in tariffs, and tax credits. These state and federal policies drove commercial competition that rapidly drove prices down. Similar results could come for any energy technology, including nuclear. In sixty-five years of federal spending on energy development, nuclear and geothermal energy have been funded only for R&D and not for incentivizing commercial deployment through tax policy.10 We need to incentivize future energy use through thoughtful public policy that supports both R&D and deployment of early adopters.
Technology specific advocacy that selectively highlights the limitations of one energy source while highlighting the benefits of another only slows down solutions to the problem.
A transition to zero carbon energy is a huge undertaking and requires every tool possible. Technology specific advocacy that selectively highlights the limitations of one energy source while highlighting the benefits of another only slows down solutions to the problem.
Larsen is right that now is the time for the federal government to fully invest in clean energy technologies. To put the United States on a real pathway to 100 percent by 2050, this needs to include nuclear energy. That is the right way to build a barn.
6. S. Chu and A. Majumdar, “Opportunities and Challenges for a Sustainable Energy Future,” Nature 488 (2012) 294-303;
7. G. J. Kramer and M. Haigh, “No Quick Switch to Low-Carbon Energy,” Nature 462 (2009): 568-569.
8. Cary Funk and Brian Kennedy, “The Politics of Climate,” Pew Research Center, October 4, 2016.
9. K. Gupta, M. C. Nowlin, J. T. Ripberger, H. C. Jenkins-Smith, and C. L. Silva, “Tracking the Nuclear ‘Mood’in the United States: Introducing a Long Term Measure of Public Opinion about Nuclear Energy Using Aggregate Survey Data,” Energy Policy 133 (2019): 110888.
10. “Two Thirds of a Century and $1 Trillion+U.S. Energy Incentives, Analysis of Federal Expenditures for Energy Development, 1950- 2016,” Management Information Services, Inc., Washington, DC, May 2017.