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“We will not accept proposals that could cause immediate harm to millions of our members and their families. We will not stand by and allow threats to our members’ jobs and their families’ standard of living to go unanswered.”
This was the lingering sentiment in a March 2019 open letter addressed to Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) from the AFL-CIO Energy Committee. The group, comprised of energy-sector unions like the United Steelworkers and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), took issue with the Green New Deal (GND) resolution the two lawmakers’ had recently introduced. Ironically, a central pillar of the GND—reintroduced in April 2021 as H.Res.332—is a “Just Transition,” a verbal assurance that today’s fossil fuel workers hold tomorrow’s clean energy jobs.
H.Res.332 seeks to codify a U.S. clean energy mobilization that “creates high-quality union jobs that pay prevailing wages, hires local workers, offers training and advancement opportunities, and guarantees direct replacement of lost wages, health care, retirement, and other benefits for workers affected by the transition.” Environmental advocates increasingly employ or invoke this Just Transition framework when developing industrial-focused climate policies, and the concept has attained a global currency: More than 50 heads of state signed onto a Solidarity and Just Transition Silesia Declaration at the 24th annual Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, held in coal-powered Poland in 2018, and the European Commission has developed the “Just Transition Mechanism” as part of its European Green Deal.
But nearly three years later, no U.S.-based national energy sector union has explicitly supported the GND. For them, Just Transition language raises the specter of lost jobs, falling wages, and abandonment. The friction between GND ambitions and those it is designed to mobilize suggests that advocates’ current conceptualization and communication of a Just Transition is too narrow to broaden its support. For instance, in their letter to Sen. Markey and Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, the unions on the AFL-CIO Energy Committee acknowledged the need to invest in all kinds of energy technologies, from solar and wind to nuclear energy.
This raises the question: could a more technology-inclusive clean energy job framework broaden support? For example, nuclear energy has long held the support of labor unions and heavy industry. With the United States home to dozens of advanced nuclear companies working to commercialize new designs, this technology may help bridge the gap between GND advocates and labor unions on how to achieve a Just Transition.
However, to earn the support of GND supporters and environmental justice communities, nuclear developers and operators will have to reckon with their past, take the needs of struggling communities into account, and commit to more equitable models of deployment and engagement. Doing so will mean coming to terms with legacy weapons waste issues, mitigating ongoing conflicts with local communities over uranium mining, and embracing modern siting practices for reactors and waste. If the nuclear industry can do this and help to reconcile a Just Transition with environmental justice concerns on the ground, advanced nuclear can support domestic decarbonization, help increase political support for climate action, and alleviate the negative economic impacts of the United States’ energy transition on fossil fuel-producing communities.
“Just Transition” has roots in the U.S. labor movement itself. Anthony Mazzocchi, the president of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union, coined the term in response to the closure of the Ciba-Geigy chemical facility in Toms River, New Jersey in the mid-1980s.
Under the prevailing Just Transition narrative, today’s fossil fuel workers become the bricklayers of a clean energy economy. Renewable energy technologies replace pipelines and refineries, shuttered coal plants and other fossil fuel infrastructure provide the sites and grid connections for wind, solar, and battery installations, and fossil fuel workers enroll in retraining programs and graduate as clean energy technicians.
This vision has yet to manifest fully. Researchers still debate the feasibility of a grid powered exclusively by wind, water, and sun, and building trade unions that work in and around the fossil fuel sector do not yet see a path forward by which a clean energy transition does not reduce their membership or political power.
By many metrics, the fossil fuel industry is the largest and most economically enmeshed on the planet. Oil, gas, and coal development depends on specific worker skillsets and geographies that make it difficult to develop one-to-one comparisons between jobs in fossil fuels and clean energy. However, primary and secondary employment associated with power plants offers an apples-to-apples comparison in terms of jobs produced per gigawatt-hour (GWh) using fossil energies or clean energies for electric power generation. Power plants provide the type of high-quality, well-paid employment that unions seek: Researchers from UC Berkeley have found that on a per GWh basis, conventional nuclear power supports 0.14 full-time equivalent annual jobs per GWh, compared to 0.11 for coal and natural gas. Renewable fields vary greatly on this metric, from 0.17 jobs per GWh for wind to 0.87 for solar. However, much of the renewables job data is based on early- and mid-2000s data that predates the modern wind and solar industry. A more recent review confirmed a wide range exists in renewables job generation, including within technology classes. That review also found that nuclear power plant jobs slightly exceed those for coal and natural gas plants, and that renewable jobs exceed all three. By one estimate, the build-out of nuclear reactors to replace fossil fuels could boost overall sector employment by tens of thousands of jobs.
Communities with a heavy reliance on fossil employment value fossil-related jobs for their high prevailing wages, which can dwarf the wages of renewable workers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2020 median annual pay for power plant operators, distributors, and dispatchers was $85,950, while the average annual pay for wind turbine technicians and solar photovoltaic installers stood at $52,910 and $44,890. This pay gap is in part a consequence of renewable industry employers’ reticence to support the unionization of their workers. For instance, in September 2019, a California judge found that clean energy icon Elon Musk and other executives at the automaker Tesla Inc. violated labor laws by attempting to bust employees’ unionization efforts. Two months later, the New York solar power company Bright Power fired construction workers for trying to join IBEW and form one of the first unions in the solar industry. In both cases, workers tried to unionize to improve safety and wage rates.
For Just Transition advocates looking for a bigger clean energy carrot to entice fossil workers, high-paying nuclear power jobs could prove a useful alignment of interests. While nuclear energy produces fewer jobs than renewable energy overall, today’s wages at nuclear power plants usually exceed wages at renewable and fossil energy positions, in part due to the high rate of unionization of nuclear plant workers compared to other energy industries. Unionization is particularly high among workforces that build new nuclear plants. On average, nuclear power plant employees are compensated for the longer training periods they undergo than do other plant operators. In 2020, U.S. nuclear reactor operators received a median annual pay of $100,530. Although U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulations do not require nuclear operators to have a college degree, the average nuclear engineer with a bachelor’s degree earns around $113,460. As with renewables, nuclear plants also support large numbers of local jobs during construction.
Unlike smaller, distributed renewable projects, both fossil and nuclear power plants form the economic bedrock of the communities that host them. Coal plant closures illustrate the scale: In Canon, Illinois, the 425-megawatt (MW) coal-fired Duck Creek Power Plant previously paid nearly $2 million in property taxes annually, contributing roughly $950,000 to the school budget. The Manchester Local School District near Aberdeen, Ohio, saw a 30% budget reduction after two coal plants both closed on the same day. Similarly, when the Oyster Creek Generating Station in Lacey Township, New Jersey—a community so connected to the nuclear plant that its municipal seal bears an atom—closed in 2018, the township lost $11 million in annual tax revenue. The Town of Vernon, Vermont saw its tax base cut in half after the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant closed in 2014. According to the Brattle Group, the three nuclear power plants still operating in upstate New York “are responsible for $144 million in net state tax revenues annually, including more than $60 million in annual state and local property taxes.” The closure of the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant in Buchanan, New York, is expected to extinguish over $30 million in annual tax revenue.
If today’s clean energy jobs cannot actively attract fossil fuel workers and the unions that support them, then the market forces that are already transforming the U.S. energy landscape will continue to do so without the incorporation of the tenets of a Just Transition. Such a transition envisioned in the GND may benefit from a broader definition of what qualifies as a “clean job.” However, GND advocates have not universally extended that designation to nuclear energy because of the technology’s origins and legacy.
Environmental justice—supporting, including, and restoring communities on the frontlines of pollution—lies at the heart of today’s climate activism. The Biden-Harris administration has taken it up as a pillar of its climate policy through commitments like the Justice40 initiative.
The history of the development of nuclear power helps to explain why the technology is still primarily excluded from the contemporary Just Transition framing. Following the Manhattan Project, government-sponsored uranium mining to supply Cold War weapons production poisoned the people and the lands of the Navajo Nation and Lakota Nation. Before the federal government announced the first federally enforceable radon-exposure worker safety standard in 1967, the U.S. Public Health Service and Atomic Energy Commission conducted involuntary health studies on Navajo miners to inform workplace safety standards and study the long-term health impacts of radiation poisoning. Meanwhile, the federal government’s failure to prioritize the health of Navajo communities left an entire generation of workers and their families uninformed and exposed. Miners carried toxins home, and contaminated rocks and mining tailings were used to build homes. Although Congress acted in the early 1990s to pay damages to harmed workers, the federal government has not fully addressed its own administrative challenges that have failed to deliver compensation properly. And despite 13 years of planning and a six-agency cleanup program, the U.S. government has yet to remediate even one of the more than 500 abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation.
Beyond mining, weapons testing and poor handling of weapons waste have impacted communities across the world. Some of history’s most colossal nuclear weapons detonations caused significant radiological contamination throughout the South Pacific in the 1950s and 1960s, accompanied by similar secret studies of radiological health effects on indigenous populations. Nuclear weapons waste sites across the United States continue to impact local communities like Hanford, Rocky Flats, Bridgetown, and Paducah.
While government military actions caused most of these negative impacts, the commercial nuclear industry shares its origin with decisions made in the early atomic age. Many national laboratories that today primarily support technological innovation originally worked on national defense missions. The common genesis of defense and civilian nuclear power shapes public opinion on the topic of nuclear technology.
Commercial entities are not free from blame. Recently, uranium mining resurfaced as a flashpoint for tribal communities when companies again sought to mine on tribal lands. After President Barack Obama declared the uranium-rich Bears Ears region a national monument after years of advocacy efforts in favor of the move from environmentalists and local Native Americans, President Donald Trump in 2017 moved to reduce the size of the monument by 85% following lobbying by a single Canadian-owned uranium mining company. Although President Biden restored the monument to its original size and uranium mining in the area is not likely in the near term, the threat of removed protections continues in the face of rising uranium prices. Grave robbing and damage to archeological sites remain rampant in Bears Ears, but no nuclear power plant gets its fuel from the area. Meanwhile, the Oglala Sioux are fighting a proposed uranium mine in South Dakota located near the Tribe’s territory. Neither the broader nuclear industry nor next-generation nuclear developers have vocally opposed either of these moves to develop uranium.
Nuclear waste storage remains another concern of communities across the country and an unsolved political issue. Congress forced a nuclear waste repository on Nevada, whose state politicians and local population have strongly opposed the project for years until President Trump abandoned it ahead of the 2020 presidential election. Without concurrent state- and community-level buy-in, nuclear waste remains a major social concern that could inhibit future public investment in advanced reactors.
In light of this history, Just Transition messaging often labels nuclear a “false solution.” The Climate Justice Alliance in 2016 criticized President Obama’s Clean Power Plan for including nuclear energy. The 2020 presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) called nuclear a dead end on the path to 100% sustainable energy, alongside geoengineering, trash incinerators, and carbon capture and sequestration. Despite the opposition from European nuclear-supporting countries like Poland and Hungary, the European Commission’s Just Transition Mechanism in the European Green Deal excludes nuclear.
The exclusion of nuclear energy from much of the GND vision is also attributable to disparities in the distribution of benefits versus detriments of nuclear technology. Historically, industries have chosen to site treatment, storage, and disposal facilities (TSDF) that handle nuclear or other hazardous wastes based on “disparate siting”—an implicit strategy that seeks the “path of least resistance.” This strategy emerged in the late 1970s as whiter and more affluent communities deflected TSDF projects to poorer communities. Researchers at the University of Tennessee and the University of New Orleans have shown that during this period, PIBBYism (Place In Blacks’ Back Yards) superseded NIMBYism. Much of the literature on disparate siting focuses on TSDF; comparatively little research exists into the socioeconomic factors that have historically influenced power plant siting.
However, research does exist into the demographics of places that receive the most and fewest benefits from nuclear. The Fastest Path to Zero (FPtZ) initiative at the University of Michigan has used Geographic Information Systems (GIS) analysis to examine the demographic shifts that occur over time in the locations of uranium recovery facilities and of nuclear reactor facilities. The initiative finds that the overall percentage of marginalized populations is higher in counties with extraction facilities than in counties with nuclear reactor facilities at the time of siting. However, the siting of extraction facilities results in a demographic shift over time, as more marginalized populations move into these counties post-siting, and more advantaged groups move out. Conversely, communities that host nuclear power plants are demographically more stable and contain lower percentages of people living below the poverty line and higher levels of people with college degrees. Suzanne Baker, former Creative Director at FPtZ and co-founder of the Good Energy Collective, has commented that, “at a high level, there’s good nuclear stuff like power plants with high-paying jobs in rich, predominantly white neighborhoods, and then there’s mining and waste in underserved neighborhoods.” In short, having a nuclear power plant in one’s town may actually be a sign of privilege.
Today, disenfranchised communities, especially those that have housed TSDF and shouldered the risks of nuclear technologies, should have systemic access to the benefits of new nuclear energy technologies. In this context, systemic access means having the resources and tools needed to build and operate technologies that simultaneously support job growth and respond to climate change, in the spirit of President Biden’s Justice40 initiative. Importantly, it also means allowing each community to have greater authority to choose what energy pathway is right for itself.
What does advanced nuclear have to offer a climate-constrained, justice-focused energy future?
Technological and cultural shifts underpin today’s development of new nuclear reactor designs that could make them a valuable tool in the transition away from fossil fuels. Boosted by an influx of new talent and ushered in by a diverse coalition of advocates, innovation in the nuclear power sector is starting to shift the paradigm of this technology and its role in the political economy of climate mitigation. By departing from the conventional “hub-and-spoke” electricity system designs of 20th century nuclear power plants, a range of communities and industries are beginning to include advanced reactors in their energy and climate strategies. Some off-grid communities, for example, are interested in deploying microreactors to wean off diesel, while industrial customers are exploring advanced nuclear’s potential to generate synthetic fuels.
Advanced nuclear technologies, with innovations in reactor design and fuel cycles, promise to be more economic, cleaner, and safer than conventional nuclear power. Their ability to produce heat and products like hydrogen also distinguishes advanced reactors from other forms of clean energy generation. Importantly, some microreactor designs are as small as 1 MW, or one thousandth the size of a traditional reactor. Such distributed nuclear technologies can form the backbone of resilient, renewable-powered microgrids and are already attracting support from rural and remote communities determined to gain more direct control over their energy mix. Meanwhile, small modular reactors can expand the range of nuclear options to small cities and developing countries that would otherwise not be able to build a conventional 1-GW reactor. The Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems’ Carbon Free Power Project is one example of a network of towns working together to invest in an advanced nuclear power plant that could provide them with decades of low-carbon power. The GND framework draws inspiration from the New Deal’s Rural Electrification Administration, which gave loans to communities that wanted their own power lines; today, the U.S. Department of Energy is again empowering communities by helping them explore the feasibility of having their own nuclear power projects.
Although U.S. advanced reactors are still in the licensing phase, congressional testimony and regulatory documents indicate that advanced reactors could still provide more jobs than the coal and gas plants they might replace. NuScale Power expects to employ a workforce at each of its plants that is roughly twice that of a similarly-sized coal plant and six times that of a similarly-sized combined-cycle natural gas plant. NuScale also projects its reactors could generate thousands of secondary jobs related to the engineering, manufacturing, and construction of its plants. In addition, Oklo estimates that its 1.5- MW Aurora reactor could fill 15 full-time jobs, plus short-term construction jobs—a significant job-to-MW ratio.
Meanwhile, new technological innovations and siting approaches offer solutions to the challenges of storing and treating commercial nuclear waste. Some new reactors are more efficient, reducing uranium needs in the first place, while others can consume nuclear waste as fuel. Nevertheless, a permanent waste repository is still necessary. The company Deep Isolation is developing a technology that will perform horizontal drilling to store waste in geologically stable areas. Politically, the United States and other countries’ challenges in developing nuclear waste repositories has led to the rise of social-license-to-operate and consent-based siting models. With more equitable community engagement, these models embody justice better than their precursors and are on track to lead to the first permanent nuclear waste repositories in Sweden and Finland. The Canadian Nuclear Waste Management Organization is currently selecting a repository site using a similar consent-based process.
Against the backdrop of U.S. political partisanship, advanced nuclear energy has a striking level of bipartisan political support in Congress. Support from both parties led to two major advanced nuclear bills passing in 2018 and 2019. The following year, the expansive Energy Act of 2020 included many provisions to foster advanced nuclear innovation and deployments. Political moderates on the left already often support nuclear power, potentially easing the path for support over other firm power technologies, many of which still incorporate fossil fuels.
In weighing whether nuclear energy fits into a GND vision, advanced nuclear may offer multiple potential through lines with Just Transition political strategy to secure expansive climate legislation in the coming years, including offering new business models like community ownership of energy projects, attracting bipartisan coalitions and union support, generating clean energy, employing community members in well paid jobs, and providing a tax revenue source. If a version of the GND or other major climate legislation, such as a carbon price or R&D package, are to have a chance of enactment, policy support for advanced nuclear could be critical to building a successful, bipartisan political coalition.
Unions from multiple building trades strongly support nuclear energy. IBEW and local union branches have been actively involved in securing license extensions for existing plants in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. IBEW has also consistently supported nuclear legislation.
However, if advanced nuclear is to play a role in Just Transitions by providing jobs, community economic benefits, and clean power, the nuclear industry will need to embrace Just Transition principles. Workers and their families deserve to feel confident about a clean energy shift that does not come at their expense. Any coalition tied together by support for nuclear energy will first depend on nuclear developers’ ability to gain the support of progressives who still have concerns about existing nuclear power plants and distrust the nuclear industry over past weapons affiliations or business practices.
Moving forward, the onus lies on the nuclear sector to continue innovating in ways that go beyond new pumps and pipes. Any attempts to override tribal sovereignty over uranium mining or push for waste storage solutions that lack local support, for example, will remain counterproductive to increasing GND supporters’ acceptance of nuclear power. The industry should confront a challenging history of poor stakeholder engagement and prioritize environmental justice and community buy-in to demonstrate that the sector’s new leadership and workforce share climate and justice advocates’ motivations and goals. Through this work, advanced nuclear has the potential to forge new ties between GND advocates and unions—a critical alignment of a successful Just Transition.
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