What Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren get wrong about nuclear power

It's not the solution to climate change. But it's going to help us get there.

At the recent climate town hall for the Democratic presidential candidates, both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders displayed an excellent command of the facts, and better still a serious appreciation of the extreme urgency of the subject — particularly in contrast to their rival Joe Biden, who was rambling and unclear (when he wasn't literally bleeding from the eyes). Either Sanders or Warren would be head and shoulders above any previous president on climate, Barack Obama very much included.

But both have committed a serious policy error. They both disavowed the use of nuclear power, and worse, said existing nuclear power plants should be gradually dismantled. Sanders touted his (otherwise excellent) climate plan, which would put a "moratorium" on existing nuclear power license renewals. Warren agreed at the town hall, saying "we won't be building new nuclear plants. We will start weaning ourselves off nuclear and replace it with renewables." This is a bad priority for climate policy.

Now, it's perfectly understandable where this attitude comes from. Nuclear waste is dangerous and can remain so for tens of thousands of years, and nuclear accidents can be the stuff of nightmares. The idea of dying horribly from some invisible atomic poison one can neither see nor smell tends to grip the imagination, as demonstrated by the huge success of the brilliant HBO series Chernobyl. If nuclear goes wrong, it goes very wrong. As a result, many environmentalists have internalized the idea that nuclear is just as bad as coal, if not worse.

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But this simply is not the case. Not only does nuclear produce near-zero emissions, even if we grant all the worst estimates of how many people have died from nuclear accidents, the total is utterly dwarfed by the ziggurat of skulls piled up yearly just from the direct effects of carbon pollution. The Chernobyl disaster (the worst nuclear accident by far) killed somewhere between 4,000 and 60,000 people, while Fukushima killed about 1,600. Meanwhile a recent study found about 3.6 million premature deaths caused every year just by fossil-fuel air pollution alone. As Hannah Ritchie calculates, per unit of electricity generated, oil is 263 times more deadly than nuclear, ordinary coal 352 times deadlier, and lignite coal 467 times deadlier. (Then on top of that there are a still-unknown but definitely growing number of climate casualties.)

And as New York's Eric Levitz writes, the best example of in history of a super-rapid decarbonization came from a mass nuclear buildout:

Between 1979 and 1988, the French cut their carbon emissions by an average annual rate of 2.9 percent. Over that same period, France reduced the carbon intensity of its energy system by 4.5 percent, by far the largest decline any country has achieved in a single decade. [New York]

On the other hand, nuclear is not a climate panacea, as a certain brand of annoying know-it-all centrist would have it. The most glib proponents of this view portray nuclear as a quick, safe, easy, and virtually cost-free way to solve climate change, if only the stupid dirty hippies would stop being so irrational.

That is far from the truth. The plain fact is that modern nuclear has severe deployment problems. Nuclear plants (at least in their traditional American form) are very large, very complicated, very heavily regulated (for good reason), and hence very difficult to finance and insure. American institutions at all levels, public or private, have struggled mightily with large construction projects of any kind of late, be they building nuclear plants, aircraft carriers, subways, or high-speed rail. Indeed, nuclear has exhibited a bit of a negative learning curve price-wise — that is, getting more expensive over time, while over the same time solar and wind have plummeted like a stone in cost.

The last major effort to build a new plant in the U.S. bankrupted Westinghouse and had to be abandoned, despite billions in federal subsidies. Current nuclear plants are under threat from the simple fact that their electricity costs more to produce than natural gas and renewables (at least in current markets). Unlike in the 1980s when France was building their nuclear fleet, any cost-conscious climate effort today would be centered around renewables.

Nevertheless, it must be admitted that nuclear boosters still have a major point, particularly when it comes to existing plants. These provide nearly a fifth of all American electricity — the largest single source of climate-friendly energy, and more than all renewables put together (so far). Given the extreme urgency of cutting emissions, it is senseless to let this source of energy go until fossil-fuel power has been extirpated, and perhaps not even then (it may be wise to keep around some non-renewable baseload capacity). As Levitz writes, "We know what happens when a country committed to scaling up renewables decommissions its nuclear plants — it starts burning more coal."

Finally, there are very promising theoretical reactor designs that deserve lavish research investment. Thorium reactors in particular have the potential to provide cheap power with almost none of the downsides of current reactor designs. It would likely take a Manhattan Project-scale effort to actually figure out if they really work, and to take them to the development stage. But somebody is going to have to figure out just what has gone wrong with American construction and set it right — reactors aside, any Green New Deal will require a great deal of railroads, transit systems, hyper-efficient buildings, and so on, which just won't happen if everything costs 10-20 times what it should. A Thorium Project is as good a place to start that work as any.

At any rate, the climate hour is late indeed. The urgency of the situation calls for a ruthlessly ecumenical energy approach. Future decarbonization absolutely should rely heavily on renewables — but nuclear should be part of the mix as well, and depending on how research pans out, possibly quite a lot in future.

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