(Co-founder Jessica Lovering gave this keynote address at the Annual Winter meeting of the American Nuclear Society. This talk followed one by fossil-fuel advocate Alex Epstein.)
I know you’re all aware, but it bears repeating, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is clear that global GHG emissions need to reach net zero by 2050 to keep warming limited to 1.5 degrees celsius and avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. To that end, the International Energy Agency argues that global nuclear capacity will need to double by 2050 to meet this 1.5 degree target. But including all the plants that will retire before 2050, that’s a lot of new nuclear builds, several hundred gigawatts globally.
Focusing on the US, President-Elect Biden ran and won on an ambitious climate agenda, which would bring the US into alignment with these IPCC targets, by aiming for 100% clean energy and net zero emissions by 2050. But the Biden Plan goes beyond that by targeting 100% clean electricity by 2035, with trillions of dollars in investment.
And polling from Data for Progress shows that voters support this, with a majority of voters saying that they would be more likely to support a candidate who pledged to make historic investments in clean energy and 100% clean electricity by 2035.
As an illustrative exercise, I’d like to walk us through how much new electricity-generating capacity that would actually be:
In 2019, the US consumed 4,400 terawatt-hours of electricity, with roughly 35% of that coming from clean sources. If we want 100% of our electricity to come from clean sources, we would need to add over 350 1-gigawatt nuclear reactors operating at 90% capacity factor. Obviously, not all of this new clean electricity would be met by nuclear, but this gives you a feel for how large the market could be for new nuclear if Biden’s climate plan is made into law. But of course, the total demand for electricity would grow significantly if the goal is to decarbonize the whole economy by 2050, because we will need to electrify transportation along with heating and industry. There’s potentially a huge market for new nuclear under these climate goals.
This sounds like a really ambitious plan for the environment and the climate, but I know some of you may be skeptical whether nuclear will actually be included in such a plan. So let’s dive into this, because things have changed a lot just in the past year.
In the spring of 2019, democrats in the House and Senate released the Green New Deal resolution, and I’m sure we’ve all heard this debated endlessly since then. Notably, the resolution did not mention nuclear power, but it did leave the option open by stating a goal of “meeting 100 percent of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources.”
In fact, the Green Party critiqued the resolution for not explicitly calling for a phase-out of nuclear power.
But let’s fast-forward to 2020 and the democratic primary. The candidates had a very diverse set of views on nuclear power, but the ultimate winner was Vice-President Biden, who had always been supportive of nuclear, if not overly ambitious on climate. In contrast, primary candidate Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont, coming in second, was very bullish on climate, but has always been opposed to nuclear energy, even calling for a ban on nuclear energy in his energy policy plan. Many of you are probably happy that Biden won the primary for that reason, but what has happened since is even more interesting.
Biden and Sanders created a series of unity task forces, including one on climate change, that aimed to bridge the progressive and moderate factions of the Democratic Party. The final set of recommendations, which were released in July, push a much more aggressive climate and environmental justice agenda than Biden had originally campaigned on, but they also included explicit support for nuclear energy, mentioning the need to include investment in “advanced nuclear” more than once.
[Also in May of this year, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, one of the original authors of the GND resolution said that “the Green New Deal does leave the door open for nuclear."]
Then, in August of this year, the Democratic party voted for the first time to include nuclear energy in their platform. Specifically, the platform says: “Recognizing the urgent need to decarbonize the power sector, our technology-neutral approach is inclusive of all zero-carbon technologies, including hydroelectric power, geothermal, existing and advanced nuclear, and carbon capture and storage.”
As one concrete policy proposal, the Biden Climate plan promises to create an Advanced Research Projects Agency focused on climate, called ARPA-C, which gives one example goal of “small modular nuclear reactors at half the construction cost of today’s reactors”.
That sounds pretty good then, but can an aggressive climate plan that includes nuclear actually pass in Congress?
Well, we have seen plenty of bi-partisan support for nuclear energy in the last several years, including passage of NEICA and NEIMA. But to get something big passed, that includes serious investment in nuclear commercialization, it will likely need to be part of a broader climate package. Because it is unlikely that the Democrats will have a majority in the Senate, there could be an opening for nuclear, in that Republicans could push for support for nuclear (and likely carbon capture & storage) in exchange for supporting a climate bill. I have no idea how likely that is, but if we’re looking at another big stimulus package, it’s not out of the question. We’re already seeing talk of a “Green Recovery” in the trillions of dollars, particularly in international circles.
Of course, there are many other environmental reasons to support nuclear energy: it’s lack of local air pollutants like Nitrogen oxides, Sulfur oxides, particulates, and heavy metals, the significantly smaller mining footprint, lack of water pollution, and small land footprint. And moving beyond climate and pollution, there are those who support nuclear energy for energy security reasons, and local economic benefits like jobs and tax revenue.
But a big reason that we founded Good Energy Collective was to develop policies aimed at integrating nuclear energy into the climate response and that align with progressive values.
You are probably familiar with many of the benefits of nuclear power, but maybe don’t really see progressives or the left as natural allies, so let me quickly walk through a few areas where we do see alignment.
First of all, the big one is climate. Nuclear energy is the largest source of emissions-free electricity in the US, and any feasible plan to decarbonize fast will require a lot more nuclear. And while energy zealots often portray nuclear and renewables as opponents, SMRs and advanced nuclear designs can be good partners with renewables, enabling larger growth in wind and solar while maintaining grid reliability. For example, there’s been great work out of our national labs on nuclear-renewable hybrid systems.
Another big point of alignment is unions. More than one-third of workers across the nuclear energy industry in the US are affiliated with a labor union. And more broadly, nuclear power plants employ more workers per unit of capacity than other sources of electricity, and the salaries are about 20% higher.
Third, there is a growing movement across the US toward municipal or regional microgrids. On the East Coast, there was interest after Hurricane Sandy and concern about resilience and reliability. Similarly, here in California where I live there is motivation after several bad seasons of wildfires and frequent power outages. More broadly, communities are starting to value local control and ownership of their power, not just low costs. Yet to date these microgrids have generally been natural gas powered or rely on diesel generators. Small modular reactors, and specifically microreactors under 10 megawatts, could provide a carbon-free option for community microgrids that enables reliability and resiliency in a way that even diesel cannot.
Lastly, there’s the opportunity for nuclear in international development. One of the places I agree with Alex is on the fundamental good of modern energy consumption, particularly for enabling industrialization, agricultural modernization, and lifting people out of poverty. The message of Atoms for Peace still resonates today, but the US has ceded leadership in this area to Russia and China. There are over 30 countries interested in pursuing commercial nuclear power, and almost all of them will import their first reactors. By revitalizing the nuclear new build program in the US, we have a chance of partnering with some of these newcomer countries. But it will take a holistic, whole-of-government approach to be successful.
So, I think we’re in a really unique position, where we can broaden the coalition of who supports nuclear energy. But it’s not inevitable, there are still some real challenges.
So what are those challenges, why aren’t progressives already on board with nuclear, if it aligns with so many of their values? Well, Alex mentioned the benefits of nuclear outweighing the risks or costs. But it really matters for whom and where those benefits accrue and who bears the brunt of the risks. And historically, for nuclear, that has been very unequal. One of the things I haven’t mentioned yet is environmental justice, which is a major focus of both the Green New Deal and Biden’s climate plan, and it’s a legitimate concern that progressives and environmentalists have around nuclear.
There are plenty of examples from nuclear’s history of injustice, from atomic weapons testing to mining uranium on indigenous land. You can’t chalk up this opposition to ignorance or irrational fears, these are valid criticisms of the industry. And unfortunately, this means that there’s not an easy fix. Shiny new technologies won’t help and a different PR campaign can’t erase this toxic legacy.
But I do have hope, because if we can acknowledge and address these issues in a meaningful way, nuclear has a chance to be considered a truly sustainable energy technology. And you do see the younger generation of folks working in nuclear are more attune to these issues and interested in doing the hard work to make progress.
One aspect that Good Energy Collective is focusing on is siting. For new nuclear builds, we need to revolutionize how we site projects, by engaging with communities much earlier and enabling them to make their own decisions about their energy future. Nuclear won’t be for everyone, and we need to build just processes where if a community says “no” to nuclear, that is considered a win just as much as if they say “yes.” Because some communities will say “yes”, especially if vendors design projects such that the benefits are accrued locally, and the risks are well-understood by the community beforehand.
Some examples of where the best first markets might be? For microreactors, off-grid, diesel-dependent communities might be amenable, as many are paying high prices for electricity that is also very dirty and can be unreliable. My dissertation work found that in many of these locations, nuclear can be the cheaper option, that also reduces local public health impacts from burning diesel. That’s a win-win.
But for communities that are on the main power grid, a different challenge looms. Over 600 coal plants have closed across the US in the last decade, with another 25 gigawatts planned to close in the next five years. The primary cause of this is cheap natural gas. While this is great news for the climate, it can be devastating for local economies. For all of Trump’s talk about ending the war on coal, it’s hard to fight basic economics.
However, repowering these retiring coal plants with a set of SMRs could be a very attractive option. The SMRs could take advantage of existing infrastructure like transmission lines and rail lines, whereas the local community would have a guarantee that jobs would stay local. And seeing as how nuclear power plants typically employ more people and pay higher salaries than coal plants, this could provide significant benefits. Such a project could both revitalize struggling communities in the rust belt, while also potentially accelerating decarbonization, by motivating communities to make plans to close their local coal plant and have the generation replaced by local emissions-free energy rather than natural gas somewhere else on the grid.
These are just two examples of potential niche markets for advanced nuclear, and I encourage you to think creatively about more of them. But both examples highlight an important point. We need to move beyond thinking about nuclear in isolation, and start thinking about how nuclear fits into the broader energy transition, both to fight climate change and address environmental and economic injustice. That’s the work that we’ll be doing at the Good Energy Collective, and I hope you’ll join us in whatever capacity you can.