Renewable sources of energy like solar and wind are relatively uncontroversial among proponents of economic decarbonization to mitigate the climate crisis. Nuclear energy, however, is struggling economically in the face of stiff competition and public safety concerns despite the fact that nuclear provides a sizable portion of the United States’ carbon-free energy supply.
According to the latest U.N. Emissions Gap Report, global carbon emissions must fall at an unprecedented rate of 7.6 percent each year from 2020 to 2030 in order to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial temperatures.
That’s the target set by the Paris Agreement, a deal that world leaders struck in 2015 in an attempt to cut down on global emissions to avert the worst effects of the climate crisis.
Because it’s a carbon-free source of energy that generates 20 percent of all electricity and half of all carbon-free electricity in the United States, nuclear power could be a key element of any path to a zero-carbon economy.
As other sources of energy like renewables and natural gas rise, however, nuclear energy is struggling to compete economically and in recent years, several nuclear plants have shut down as a result.
“The existing plants that we have now have been struggling economically as of late,” Jessica Lovering a fellow at Energy for Growth said during a nuclear energy panel on Capitol Hill last week.
“Just as an example, in the last decade seven nuclear power plants have closed prematurely and it looks like another 12 are scheduled to close within the next five years.”
Energy industry experts on the panel with Lovering described the uncertain state of the nuclear industry and discussed two bipartisan bills designed to bolster the struggling nuclear power plants currently in operation. One of the bills, the Nuclear Powers America Act from Senators Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Kevin Kramer (R-ND) would provide existing nuclear power plants with an investment tax credit.
“This act is particularly important for plants that are on the bubble in terms of their economics when decisions about license extensions are being made,” Jackie Kemper of Third Way’s Climate and Energy Program said.
“The credit in this bill is designed to help these plants compete against cheap fossil energy and other forms of heavily subsidized energy, but not at the expense of subsidizing renewables.”
The Nuclear Energy Renewal Act is a bipartisan effort by Senators Chris Coons (D-DE) and Martha McSally (R-AZ) to cut down on carbon emissions by helping nuclear power plants to stay in operation longer and bolstering their economic viability. The bill would direct the U.S. Energy Secretary to implement a program to reduce operating costs and train workers for nuclear power plants.
But panelist Edwin Lyman from the Union of Concerned Scientists, warned economic viability could come at the expense of safety.
“Safety and economics don’t always go hand in hand, so I think there are some good pieces of this, but we’d like to see a more comprehensive bill to address the ways in which safety may be compromised by attempting to achieve better economic performance with explicit instruction to avoid that,” Lyman said of the Nuclear Energy Renewal Act.
Safety is a serious challenge for the nuclear industry after major disasters like the one in Fukushima, Japan, (where an earthquake followed by a tsunami led to a series of reactor meltdowns) have shaken the public’s perception of nuclear energy. Lyman said compromising on the safety of nuclear power could jeopardize the resource’s availability in the future.
“You only have to look at Japan and the aftermath of the Fukushima accident in 2011 to see how that scenario could play out,” Lyman said. “The industry can’t afford additional safety and security incidents that challenge its credibility and public perception.”
Public opinion on nuclear energy as a power source is evenly split according to an April survey from Gallup, which found 49 percent of Americans support the use of nuclear energy while 49 percent are opposed. That’s a drop in support from the high point of 2010 when Gallup found 62 percent of Americans in favor and just 33 percent opposed.
Public perceptions of nuclear energy’s safety are a major reason why it’s a point of contention in the debate over how exactly to decarbonize the economy.
Other candidates like Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) have suggested phasing out nuclear energy as a power source and Sanders has even gone so far as to call nuclear energy a “false solution” to the climate crisis.