Taking a second look at nuclear power to fight climate change


When I was a young reporter in San Diego, we had a contest: “I can alienate this reader in a few words.” The winner was three: Otay Water District.

Stories about the utility were terribly boring. But today I beat him. I can alienate this reader with two words: nuclear energy.

This time, the source of the estrangement is not boredom but anger and fear, especially in the environmental activist (and heavily hydroelectric) Pacific Northwest.

The outrage goes this way: how could nuclear even be considered an alternative to fossil fuels and a tool to help decarbonize the economy, regardless of the dangers of climate change? Nuclear power plants carry their own risks, including the unresolved issue of safe storage of spent fuel.

According to a 2019 Pew Research Center poll, respondents were evenly split on nuclear, with 92% in favor of solar expansion and 85% in favor of wind.

Japan’s Fukushima collapse triggered by the 2011 tsunami heightened anxiety, stretching back to Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986. So did pop culture, such as the movie “The China Syndrome of 1979 and the green, rat-infested nuclear power plant. “The simpsons.”

Germany recently closed three of its six nuclear power plants, with the others to be closed by the end of this year. In 2000, the country’s parliament voted to end reliance on uranium power plants. Chancellor Angela Merkle — a physicist — wanted to extend the life of existing stations. But it was not to be.

The trick now is to continue the decarbonization of Germany without nuclear power. Renewables such as solar and wind power are growing and becoming cheaper (in some cases cheaper than fossil fuels, especially with Berlin’s heavy subsidies for solar power), but they are still not enough to replace lost reactors. France, on the other hand, depends on nuclear for around 70% of its electricity and is building more power plants.

But can we avoid the conversation in a country like the United States, where nuclear represents 20% of total electricity?

It comes from 55 commercially operated plants in 28 states (including the Columbia plant near Richland; Oregon’s troubled Trojan plant was taken out of service in 1992). The largest is the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station near Phoenix. They contribute zero carbon emissions to the atmosphere and are essential to decarbonizing the economy.

Columbia is the only remnant of the Washington Public Power Supply System. In the 1970s, WPPSS, with 17 member utilities, anticipated an increase in demand for electricity that could only be met by nuclear power plants. Five power stations were planned, but factors ranging from inflation to local opposition doomed the others. “Woops” resulted in the largest municipal default in US history up to that time.

Emissions rose 6.2% last year, according to Rhodium Group, an independent research firm. The main cause was a 17% jump in the burning of the dirtiest fossil fuel, coal. It was the first increase in coal production since 2014. It further jeopardizes President Joe Biden’s ambitious climate goals.

America burns a billion tons of coal a year, which can contribute to the direct and indirect deaths of 100,000 people a year from pollution. No deaths in the United States or Western Europe have ever resulted from nuclear power and only two died directly in Japan (31 died in Chernobyl due to inferior reactor design and poor nuclear management). the catastrophe).

Even so, environmental activists such as Bill McKibben found new reason to question the safety of nuclear power after the September 11 attacks, that power plants are vulnerable to terrorist attacks, including a plane strike ( not everyone agrees).

Of course, not all environmentalists are opposed to nuclear energy. For example, NASA’s James Hansen, credited with bringing climate change to the public eye, has long favored the use of nuclear energy.

A 2021 New Yorker article featured Heather Hoff, who went to work at the Diablo Canyon power plant in California. Her closeness to the operation caused her to change her anti-nuclear stance.

“Hoff was particularly struck by the fact that nuclear power generation does not emit carbon dioxide or other air pollutants associated with fossil fuels,” the article said. “Eventually, she began to think that fears of nuclear power were not just wrong but dangerous. Her work no longer seemed to be in tension with her environmentalist views. Instead, it felt like an expression of her deepest values.

Along with Kristin Zaitz, a civil engineer and another anti-nuclear person who changed her mind, she founded a non-profit organization called Mothers for Nuclear.

Meanwhile, the Breakthrough Institute was founded in the Bay Area by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, among a number of pro-nuclear environmental think tanks.

The New Yorker article describes “the pro-nuclear community [as] small and grumpy. There are debates about the importance of the role that renewables should play and whether to focus on preserving existing plants or developing advanced reactors, which have the potential to shut down automatically in the event overheating and run on spent fuel.

With the abandonment of Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a tomb for spent fuel, this remains a challenge for nuclear power. So is the age of US power plants and Wall Street’s reluctance to fund new reactors.

My colleague Hal Bernton wrote about Maryland-based X-energy, which is pioneering a new generation of highly efficient small reactors. The first would be near the Hanford nuclear reserve and is powered by money from the federal Department of Energy.

X-energy, along with Bill Gates’ Bellevue-based TerraPower and Portland-based NuScale, “offer reactors that can ramp up and down their electrical output much faster than the large reactors currently in operation. This agility could help keep power grids balanced as more wind and solar power come online. »

Whether these efforts will produce breakthroughs that reduce anxiety about nuclear power remains to be seen.

But taking nuclear completely off the table at a time when decarbonizing the economy is paramount seems self-defeating.

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