Renewables alone won’t save the planet

Nuclear energy must play a central and dominant role if humans are to seriously tackle the dangerous threat of climate change.

Nuclear power plants in Slovakia. Getty Images.


Numerous rising stars in US politics are harnessing the momentum of the climate crisis and campaigning on bold, feel-good 100% renewable energy policies. In Minneapolis, for example, state representative Ilhan Omar, who is the Democratic Farmer Labor Party’s endorsed candidate in Minnesota’s 5th congressional district, has endorsed the notion of 100% renewable energy. Similarly, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — a Democratic Socialist running as the endorsed candidate in New York’s 14th who has become an overnight sensation — has strongly supported a transition to 100% renewables in her “Green New Deal”. She received tremendously positive coverage from left-leaning media sources, with Huffington Post going as far as calling her the Leading Democrat on Climate Change.

Sadly, the “100% renewables” line is an incomplete and unfortunate rallying cry from well-intentioned political leaders who can do better.

The popularity of 100% renewables is ostensibly driven by the urgency of climate change, but the word renewable excludes zero-carbon nuclear power. As the cost of solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries fall, it makes sense to increase the share of renewables in the energy mix. What doesn’t make sense is opposing nuclear energy, which generates 20% of total electricity in the United States and a whopping 60% of carbon-free electricity.

Without political support, the largest source of clean energy in the US and Europe is becoming a victim of otherwise climate-friendly policies. Renewable subsidies and cheap fracked natural gas have forced solidly operating nuclear plants around the country to close prematurely because their stable operating costs exceed market electricity prices. Utility providers replace the lost generation capacity with new natural gas plants, thwarting climate goals. In Germany, shuttered nuclear has been replaced by dirty brown coal and rising emissions, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that this renewables champion will miss its climate targets. These effects will be exacerbated as increasing electrification of transportation, heating, and industrial processes drives up electricity demand.

It is not just economic pressures. For decades, green groups like the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth have admirably focused on the issues surrounding responsible curtailing of carbon-emitting energy resources, but have brushed aside scientific evidence by lobbying for nuclear plant closures and 100% renewable energy policies. Their anti-nuclear campaign has been successful in California, where regulators recently approved a plan to prematurely close the state’s last nuclear plant by 2025. In an almost self-contradictory move, California set an admirable example last month by committing to a goal of 100% zero-carbon energy (which could include nuclear) by 2045. The state’s next governor will have to reckon with these conflicting decisions by the current leadership.

Few Americans appreciate that nuclear power has an outstanding safety and reliability record in the US. When blizzards swept the Northeast in recent winters, nuclear power plants hummed along quietly while frozen coal stacks and choked natural gas pipelines forced widespread power outages. The energy density of nuclear power (a fingernail-sized uranium fuel pellet generates as much energy as 2000 pounds of coal) means it occupies less land and produces less waste than most other forms of energy, so its overall environmental footprint remains small. Another surprising fact: more people have died installing solar panels than from nuclear energy, globally. Research is underway on next generation reactors, which improve on already robust passive safety mechanisms and burn legacy nuclear wastes for fuel. Recycling nuclear fuel reduces the volume of material to be disposed of and ensures a fuel supply for the centuries to come.

All feasible plans at the state or national levels to address climate change while ensuring a reliable and affordable energy mix must embrace every available clean energy technology. Nuclear energy should be championed on the left and the right for contributing to both environmental sustainability and abundant, dependable power generation for economic sustainability and national security.

President Donald Trump has already proven friendly to nuclear power. He can lead on this issue follow the steps of former President George. H.W. Bush’s administration by establishing a carbon trading market place. This would support nuclear energy’s comeback and fair competition with wind and solar, while putting a price on the environmental and societal impacts of fossil fuels. It’s clear that nuclear energy in the United States needs a new approach if we are to compete with India and China’s ambitious nuclear new build programs. The longer our leaders neglect the nuclear industry, the more its supply chain and expertise will fade away, making a revival increasingly difficult.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party devoted two paragraphs in their party platform to addressing climate change, with a total of zero references to nuclear energy. While President Trump famously and ridiculously called climate change “a hoax”, the 2016 Republican Party platform devoted two paragraphs in support of nuclear energy expansion and development. This provides a rare opportunity in American politics for both sides to come together and score a political victory.

This opportunity won’t last, and the status-quo won’t save us. A recent United Nations report summarized the rapid and catastrophic effects that climate change will have in our lifetimes if no drastic change of course is implemented. America needs courageous leaders from both sides of the aisle with the willingness to stand up for nuclear energy and support a comprehensive change in our energy policy and energy economy. Time is running out.


Nuclear Engineer at Argonne National Laboratory

Ph.D. Candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology