Brown: Nuclear Energy Is the Answer to Climate Challenges, Environmentalists Need to Get the Memo


(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

By Jacob Brown


All across the country, nuclear power plants struggle to stay profitable. Nuclear energy is currently the largest source of low-carbon power in America, but due to recent advances in natural gas extraction and renewable energy technologies and a reduction of nuclear energy-related subsidies in favor of renewables, many nuclear plants have become uncompetitive. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) projects that more than 33 percent of existing plants, representing 22 percent of total U.S. nuclear capacity, are currently unprofitable or scheduled to close. Four of these retiring plants, located in Ohio and Pennsylvania, operate in the mid-Atlantic energy market, which covers around 65 million Americans. Vox’s David Roberts found the loss of just those four plants would result in 40 terawatt hours of carbon-neutral energy vanishing annually— an amount equivalent to the energy being produced by the entirety of the mid-Atlantic energy market’s wind and solar sector. Roberts revealed why this is problematic. He said, “Here’s my question: Why aren’t climate hawks freaking out about this? Imagine a great hurricane was forecast to strike the mid-Atlantic in four years, crushing millions of wind turbines and solar panels, wiping out all of [the market’s] installed renewable energy capacity. Wouldn’t climate hawks treat that as a grave danger?” The majority of this lost energy will be transitioned to cheaper natural gas and coal sources, partially verifying UCS’s projections that closing the at-risk nuclear plants early could result in a cumulative four to six percent increase in US power sector carbon emissions by 2035. The energy market is behaving as you would expect any other market to— noncompetitive nuclear energy plants are being driven out of the energy marketplace since they can no longer compete. Unfortunately, most markets lack the motivation or foresight to account for climate change (besides insurance markets) and the declining nuclear energy sector is a devastating blow for the health of the global environment (and eventually will be devastating for the energy market when civilization crumbs into oblivion). Yet, no one seems to care. Indeed, the pro-nuclear side of the discussion about the declining nuclear energy sector has little in the way of vocal allies, be it environmentalist activists, politicians or citizens. On what seems to be a critical front for the fight on climate change, the nuclear energy industry is alone.

Environmentalist Movement and Nuclear Energy

Nuclear proliferation, historical mishandling of nuclear waste and nuclear reactor meltdown events such as Chernobyl and Fukushima have all been responsible for anti-nuclear energy sentiment among environmentalist groups. The Cold War period of America soured many activists to the idea of nuclear science since any scientific development in the field was deemed as enabling the development of potential nuclear armaments. Environmentalists fear that nuclear materials or waste could be stolen (by terrorists) or mishandled, which could create ecological disasters— although these events are incredibly rare and occurred decades ago. Still, the biggest issue that environmentalist groups seem to have is the ecological impact of potential nuclear reactor meltdown events. The World Health Organization found that in the 1986 Chernobyl event in Russia, the worst nuclear meltdown event in human history, an estimated 4,000 to 9,000 people died due to the effects of nuclear fallout (though 28 workers died immediately of acute radiation poisoning). Later, it was found that the Chernobyl facility’s nuclear reactor was deeply flawed by design, a failed energy project that was poorly managed by a USSR in its death throes. A more recent nuclear meltdown event in 2011 occurred when a tsunami caused the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant in Japan to meltdown. However, it was found by the United Nations Scientific Committee to have had no measurable effects on the general public, however. The mishandled evacuation of 300,000 people in the Fukushima area led to the deaths of around 1,600 because of poor evacuation center conditions, exhaustion from relocation and non-related illnesses due to limited access of healthcare.

After Fukushima, anti-nuclear paranoia was in full swing. To dispel anti-nuclear fears, NASA published a study in 2013 which found that nuclear energy has prevented an estimated 1.84 million air pollution-related deaths and 64 gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions that would have resulted from fossil fuel burning from 1972 to 2013, and also projects it could save another 0.42 to 7.04 million lives by 2050. MIT found that air pollution from burning fossil fuels kills 200,000 Americans every year and calculated in terms of deaths per terawatt-hours of electricity generated, nuclear is the safest form of energy that comes from industrial plants. After Fukushima was shut down, Japan started burning more natural gas and coal (a reoccurring theme whenever a nuclear reactor is shut down). As environmentalist Mark Lynas put it, “Looking at the air pollution mortality figures strongly suggests that it is untrue to say that nobody will die because of Fukushima… people will die, but not from radiation. Their lives will instead be shortened because of increased reliance on fossil fuels due to post-Fukushima nuclear fear.”

Nuclear energy globally has produced only 445,000 metric tons of fuel waste over the last 60 years (of which, 324,000 metric tons will be kept in storage with 121,000 metric tons to be reprocessed). Albeit nuclear fuel is highly radioactive, modern techniques and regulation have rendered storage of nuclear waste trivial. Compare that to the 78,000,000 metric tons of solar waste projected by the International Renewable Energy Agency to be generated by 2050 or to the 1.5 billion metric tons of spent coal ash waste currently stockpiled in the US. And while nuclear waste is the most highly regulated and secure of all energy waste, many countries have no plan in regards to dealing with the wasted solar panels which contain highly toxic materials and are generally dumped into landfills, or ”e-waste villages.” Fly ash, a by-product of coal-burning factories contains uranium and thorium and is flung into the surrounding environment. Coal-burning plants cause 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant to the surrounding environment not to mention its direct CO2 emissions— a metric which cannot be reiterated enough when we consider that most energy replacing failing nuclear plants will not be renewable energies but coal and natural gas.

Many environmentalist groups have been naively championing the death of the nuclear energy industry. The Massachusetts chapter of the Sierra Club ”celebrated” last year when a power plant in Massachusetts, the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant, announced it was closing down June of this year due to continued unfavorable market conditions. But a carbon-neutral power plant which powers about 5 percent of the New England region’s energy market suddenly closing down is no cause for celebration, Ironically, the environmental group doesn’t care how the 5.12 terawatt hours of carbon-free energy the plant produces per year will be replaced. Roberts explained that the problematic position many environmentalist groups have concerning climate change and nuclear energy as outlined in a particularly controversial article titled Reckoning with climate change will demand ugly tradeoffs from environmentalists. He said, “It is genuinely difficult to wrap your head around the scale of action needed to avoid catastrophic changes in the climate… to take that seriously is to support massive, immediate carbon reductions, not only at the level of theory, not only in statements and proclamations and pledges, but in the sense of preferring the lower carbon strategy in every local, city, state or federal decision, whether it’s about land, housing, transportation, infrastructure, agriculture, taxes, regulations or lifestyle habits. It means preferring the lower-carbon strategy even if other things you value must be sacrificed, even if the lower-carbon strategy is suboptimal in light of your other preferences and priorities.”

Utah and Nuclear Energy

In the midst of industry turmoil, Utah will be getting its first nuclear power plant. The Blue Castle Project which began construction in 2023 is projected to cost 20 billion dollars and will create 4,000 short-term and 1,000 long-term jobs. According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), in Utah, 2.149 gigawatt hours or 62 percent of monthly statewide energy consumption is from coal-fired sources and 0.893 gigawatt hours or 26 percent of monthly statewide energy consumption is from natural gas sources, meaning your Tesla could be 88 percent powered by fossil fuels if you live in Utah. The reactors of the Blue Castle Project would tie the Grand Gulf reactor in Mississippi for the position of largest reactors in the United States in terms of megawatt output. Though it’s impossible to estimate the average amount of energy that the two 1500 megawatt reactors will output since that depends on market forces, in comparison, the aging Grand Gulf reactor runs at 60 percent capacity and generates 0.623 gigawatt hours monthly— which means that at the low end, the Blue Castle Project’s two nuclear reactors could generate more than half of all of Utah’s energy needs. This is a huge win for the battle in Utah air quality and global warming.

Many are less enthusiastic about the project. The two massive reactors would require an estimated 50,000 acre-feet (a unit of volume equal to a sheet of water one acre in area and one foot deep) of water per year. Several Utah based environmental groups, businesses and individuals launched lawsuits in 2012 due to water leasing rights and the site has been the subject of protests by environmental groups and anti-nuclear activists. In a public policy discussion held by the Sutherland Institute Edward Kee, VP of the National Economic Research Associates explained that Utah enjoys cheap electricity because of cheap fossil fuel emitting plants and that carbon taxes to clean Utah’s air could adversely increase prices. Nuclear energy, however, could be the solution for good air quality and fair electricity market prices. Urgent demands for support came in 2013, as reported by Deseret News, when four world-renowned, Utah-based climate scientists penned a letter to the environmental community urging support for developing a new generation of nuclear reactors to be built in Utah. “With the planet warming and carbon dioxide emissions rising faster than ever, we cannot afford to turn away from any technology that has the potential to displace a large fraction of our carbon emissions,” they wrote. One of the writers, a historically controversial scientist who left NASA to become a climate change activist, said, “Quantitative analyses show that the risks associated with the expanded use of nuclear energy are orders of magnitude smaller than the risks associated with fossil fuels … No energy system is without downsides. We only ask that energy system decisions be based on facts, and not on emotions and biases that do not apply to 21st-century nuclear technology.” According to Desert News, the letter brought a “shrug” from the anti-nuclear activist organization, HEAL Utah, an organization which had been fighting to derail the Blue Castle Project.

Environmentalists need to get serious about climate change. Choosing which types of energies to support or resist is not a zero-sum game— climate change is an existential threat, and we don’t have the luxury to be ideologically finicky over how we reduce our carbon emissions. A proportional mix of renewable and nuclear energies are required to go carbon neutral. Solar and wind are just not scalable enough yet: the largest solar plant in the United States only produces 1/6 the energy of the planned Utah nuclear plant, they also take up vast amounts of space and resources, and they can’t baseload (produce power at a constant rate) which means they require coal, hydro, nuclear, or gas to base load for them. We already have this substantial infrastructure of carbon-neutral energy production in America in the form of nuclear energy, yet it is heavily underutilized and has no public support. To make the nuclear energy industry profitable again would mean subsidizing the industry per watt and convincing taxpayers to pay for it. In a cruel twist of fate, however, environmentalists may have propagated so much anti-nuclear fear in the past several decades that nervous taxpayers will let the nuclear energy industry decline while fossil fuels proliferate in the energy sector while the earth gets a little bit hotter. I suspect the Blue Castle Project will eventually require public support via subsidies to stay competitive and that will be a big political challenge to justify — meaning environmentalists need to suck it up and start advocating for nuclear energy if they are serious about fighting climate change. The costs of compromising on personal ideology is greatly outweighed by the benefits when considering nuclear energy in Utah will decimate its absurd dependence on fossil fuels and will drastically improve air quality.


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