Climate experts want more nuclear power. Sanders and Warren pledged to eliminate it

Photo of Climate experts want more nuclear power. Sanders and Warren pledged to eliminate it

I’m grateful that others had the time and patience to sort through that seven-hour “climate crisis” ratings debacle on CNN this week, because I certainly couldn’t sit through it. One of the key moments, at least in terms of the nation’s future energy policy, came from Elizabeth Warren when she decided to weigh in on America’s nuclear energy capabilities. The consensus among virtually every expert in this field, including scientists who are concerned about carbon emissions and climate change, is that we need more nuclear power (actually, a lot more) not less. And yet there was Warren, vowing to shut down every reactor in the country as quickly as possible. (Washington Examiner)

Sen. Elizabeth Warren benefits from the myth that she’s some sort of policy whiz, but her pledge during Wednesday night’s climate town hall to eliminate all nuclear power flies in the face of the advice of climate experts, who have argued that nuclear power needs to increase significantly to move society away from carbon-based energy and avert catastrophe.

Not only did Warren pledge to prevent the building of new power plants, but she also said she would phase out all nuclear power by 2035 and replace it with renewables.

The International Energy Agency has concluded that meeting the goal of keeping warming to no greater than 2 degrees Celsius would require doubling global nuclear energy generation capacity by 2050. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is often cited as the leading authority by liberals, reached a similar conclusion.

In addition to Warren, Bernie Sanders has already released his own energy plan in which he describes nuclear energy as one of many “false solutions.” He goes on to promise that he will phase out American nuclear power “completely and quickly.”

To be fair, Joe Biden’s plan does still include nuclear, but he’s unclear as to whether he’s willing to help expand it or simply let it continue as is.

I’ll get to my rant on this in a moment, but first, we should clear up a couple of things about nuclear energy in the 21st century, both in terms of the politics and the science.

If you really want to understand the nuts and bolts of the benefits and importance of nuclear power in America’s future energy portfolio, read “The Politics of Nuclear Power,” by Steven Novella at Neurologica. And keep in mind that this wasn’t written by some conservative with an ax to grind against liberals. Novella is both abusive and dismissive of Donald Trump as an unscientific person who “probably doesn’t like to read.” He praises Democrats as being more on the right side of science but says the two things they get wrong are their collective objection to GMOs and their opposition to nuclear power. It’s a rather thick essay, but here’s the important part. (Emphasis added)

Nuclear power is the safest form of energy we have, if you consider deaths per megawatt of energy produced.

Nuclear waste can be dealt with, and the newer reactors produce less waste, and can even theoretically burn reprocessed waste from older plants

This is also the option most likely to succeed. We do have examples from other countries. Germany tried to go completely renewable and closed their nuclear plants, and now have to build coal-fired plants to meet their energy needs. Meanwhile, the countries that are doing the best with low carbon energy are France and Sweden, who invested heavily in nuclear. This is why Bernie’s plan would be a disaster, it would exactly follow the failed strategy of Germany, but on a larger scale.

You won’t find much of a better example than the one Novella mentions when he compares Germany and France. Germany eliminated their nuke plants entirely, promising to power the nation on wind and solar. They are now rushing to build coal plants because they can’t keep the lights on. France, on the other hand, has significantly increased its investment in nuclear energy and is currently building even more plants. They’re meeting their carbon emission goals and have electrical power to spare.

Liberals continue to cling to old beliefs based on watching The China Syndrome too many times and summoning up images of Chernobyl and Fukushima. The fact is that when Three Mile Island melted down, it created a God awful mess inside the protective dome that’s still being cleaned up today. But at no time did radiation leak out of that plant in greater amounts than you’d get by spending a day walking around Denver airport.

Chernobyl blew up because the Russians were using a horrible, unsafe reactor design. We don’t build them that way. Fukushima was working fine until it got hit by a tsunami. Yes, you have to be careful and you have to be smart when planning a new nuclear plant. Don’t build them on fault lines or on the coast where the ocean may swamp them. But there are plenty of geologically stable locations where we could start construction.

Concerns about the storage of spent fuel rods are mostly a thing of the past. They were a terrible and valid concern with our earlier reactor models, but the technology has come a long way. As you’ll read in the linked article above, we can now reclaim virtually all of the fuel from spent rods and reuse it. And if climate change is your thing, nuclear is 100% carbon-free. A nuke plant’s only emissions are excess heat from the cooling towers.

Why aren’t we building more nuclear plants in America today? Partly because of the politics, but also because we have so heavily regulated the industry that utility companies can no longer afford all of the hoops they have to jump through. New nuke plants under the current regulatory scheme will never be profitable so the energy companies don’t even bother trying. There is a regulatory overhaul on the table that could resurrect the nuclear energy industry (read all about it here), but the usual list of suspects are fighting it tooth and claw.

The government can make them profitable again if the political will exists to do so and then you could do away with a lot of the fossil fuel sources we currently rely on if you wish. Sure, build all the wind and solar facilities you like in places with enough wind and sun. But you’re not going to come close to powering the entire country that way using current technology. (See Germany, above.) This is a self-inflicted problem and we could address it if our elected officials from both parties got off their butts, learned a bit more about the energy industry and got us back on track, constructing new, modern nuclear power facilities.

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