Make Room for Nuclear in the Green New Deal

Given the dire predictions for global warming outlined in the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, prioritizing zero carbon emissions and energy efficiency is not just necessary, it’s vital to preserving our future on this planet. The “Green New Deal” resolution, first introduced by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the House of Representatives on February 7, 2019, is an attempt to address this monumental challenge. It aims to pressure policymakers on both sides of the aisle to deliver practical ways forward, including how to balance climate change and long-term goals for energy security and economic growth.

An old nuclear power plant & a new wind turbine in France. Image courtesy of Jeanne Menjoulet © 2017

But one major sector of the American energy portfolio remains noticeably missing: nuclear energy. If increasing energy security, reducing carbon emissions, and creating new jobs are indeed key priorities, as the Green New Deal purports, then nuclear power must be given a prominent role to play.

Despite calls for “eliminating pollution and greenhouse gases as much as technologically feasible,” nuclear power remains a polarizing issue for both policymakers and the public due to a number of reasons including: safety concerns, the environmental impact of nuclear waste, and high costs for construction and decommissioning plants.

Early versions of the Green New Deal called for phasing out existing nuclear plants as quickly as possible, although this language was later revised to be “technology neutral.” Senator Edward Markey, the resolution’s leading co-sponsor in the Senate, clarified that the proposed resolution is not an exact “prescription” but rather, a roadmap for discussion.

This is promising because nuclear power already plays a key role in ensuring a diverse energy supply, as well as providing a clean and reliable baseload source of electricity. Ninety-nine reactors produced 19% of electricity in the United States in 2018. Although renewables are becoming a more viable source of electricity across the country, they are still a long way from meeting the majority of our energy needs.

In testimony to the U.S. Senate in February, Dr. Fatih Birol, Director of the International Energy Agency, stressed the importance of maintaining the US nuclear fleet and advancing research in this field, as nuclear still generates twice as much electricity as both wind and solar in the United States, despite a decline in operating reactors in the 1990s. The US Energy Information Administration estimates this percentage may further decrease to 12% by 2050, raising questions about how the energy gap will be filled.

For utility providers and consumers seeking to rely exclusively on solar or wind power, the issue of intermittency – or a lack of consistent power supply due to inconsistencies in production or storage – is still a significant challenge. Nuclear power, on the other hand, can deliver electricity at a rate two to three times greater than other sources and not release any air pollutants during electricity generation.

When considering the economic benefits, we should keep in mind that the nuclear energy industry directly employs upwards of 100,000 people in the United States, and nearly 475,000 when support positions are taken into account. Additionally, if done in accordance with existing safety and security guidelines, there is a strong case for exporting US civil nuclear technologies.

The Department of Commerce estimates that US exports could generate as much as $100 billion in revenue and create thousands of new jobs. In addition, exports allow the United States to establish and maintain certain levels of safety and security globally, reducing the need for new markets to turn to countries with less rigorous standards. Leadership in nuclear exports also lends the US more legitimacy in international organizations, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, to continue shaping global safeguards.

Unfortunately, the “not in my backyard” mindset is still a genuine concern for policymakers, especially when considering the wide-ranging impact of a possible nuclear disaster. The financial and environmental challenges of ensuring the safe handling and storage of nuclear waste, as well as the high costs of constructing and maintaining nuclear power plants is also a challenge, particularly when oil and gas prices are low and cost-competitive renewable options are available. While high costs are a barrier for the entire industry, there are options to lessen the financial burden. Japan has used revenue generated from taxes on carbon emissions and other power-sources to further research on nuclear plant safety, and to lower the upfront costs of building a plant. South Korea and China have elected to standardize their reactors, perfecting one design to lower costs.

Another option is advancing efforts in innovative research and development, and there are viable alternatives on the horizon in the United States. Initiatives such as the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy can develop effective solutions for some of these financial and technical challenges through investment in research and development. One promising project is a small modular reactor that can be easily transported, unaffected by environmental externalities, and integrated into grids alongside renewables. Although a small sample, this type of ingenuity demonstrates nuclear energy’s flexibility and valid claim to a long-term role in any clean energy policy.

Excluding nuclear power from the Green New Deal will undermine U.S. energy security, increase carbon emissions produced by other fuels to meet demand, and endanger our ability to set standards for nuclear power. Until other reliable, zero-carbon energy sources are identified and established on a larger scale, nuclear energy is the best resource for bridging current gaps and uncertainties, while still meeting the Green New Deal’s objectives. It would truly be a lost opportunity to permit the continued decline of nuclear power, as the very future of our energy supply and environmental sustainability may depend on it.

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Ashley Johnson

Ashley Johnson is a Project Manager with the Trade, Economic, and Energy Affairs group at the National Bureau of Asian Research, where she focuses on environmental sustainability in China and South Asia, energy security, and trade and innovation. Her expertise has been featured in various media outlets, including Nikkei Asian Review, the Guardian, the Associated Press, and BBC World News. Ms. Johnson received her MA from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and also holds a graduate certificate in Chinese-American Studies from the Hopkins-Nanjing Center. Twitter handle: @ashjohnson812  

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