On November 8th, the Union of Concerned scientists became the first major environmental non-profit to announce publicly its support for nuclear energy. It issued a report called “The Nuclear Power Dilemma: Declining Profits, Plant Closures, and the Threat of Rising Carbon Emissions,”
which assessed the status of existing nuclear power and the urgency of reducing emissions because of climate change, arguing for the need to keep all operating and safe nuclear plants open, because otherwise, emissions would rise.
The report also indicates that without new policies, the electricity generated by these and other marginally economic nuclear plants is likely to be replaced in large part with natural gas-fired generation (although this will vary from plant to plant). If this occurs, cumulative carbon emissions in the electric sector could increase by up to 6 percent between 2018 and 2035.
While a 6 percent increase in emissions doesn’t sound that sizable, emissions from the electric sector must decrease, rapidly and substantially. The National Research Council has found, for example, that power plant emissions must decrease by 90 percent by 2040 to meet US climate goals.
Most of that reduction will be achieved by using electricity more efficiently, expanding increasingly cheap solar, wind, and energy storage, modernizing our grid, and building more transmission lines to connect these renewable sources to load centers. We are counting on these approaches to replace capacity as coal plants close; cut down on an overreliance on natural gas in the short term and displace it over time; and increase overall electricity supply to pave the way for the electrification of transportation, space and water heating, and industrial processes.
But if nuclear power plants close prematurely, we add a fourth task—replacing lost nuclear capacity. While efficiency, renewables, transmission and storage may be up to the task, governments must adopt policies that assure that we will decarbonize even if these resources fall short of our expectations.
Factoring all of these considerations in, our new report calls for proactive policy to preserve nuclear power from existing plants that are operating safely but are at risk of premature closures for economic reasons or to ensure that lost nuclear capacity is replaced with carbon-free sources.
This represents a marked break from many other major environmental groups, who continue to argue that shuttered nuclear plants can be replaced entirely with energy efficiency and renewables, even as those technologies scale to replace fossil energy as well. For this reason, UCS endorses our long-standing call for Clean Energy Standards at the state and federal level in place of Renewable Portfolio Standards.
That UCS would become the first major environmental group to acknowledge an important role for nuclear energy in climate mitigation efforts is particularly symbolic. The organization was founded in the late 1960’s by veterans of the scientists movement, which had mobilized in the 1940’s and 50’s in response to concerns about the use and misuse of nuclear technology.
But in recent years, it has become increasingly evident that efforts to address climate change solely through reduced energy use and deployment of wind, water, and solar energy will not be nearly sufficient to meet global energy needs while dramatically slashing emissions.
We applaud the Union of Concerned Scientists, one of our most scientific of green groups, for its courage in finally breaking ranks and making the shift from “emotional thinker” to “rational thinker.” In doing so, they join many other leading energy thinkers who support policies that preserve existing nuclear power to protect energy diversity, protect rate-payer investments, protect the climate and even help maintain lower energy costs to consumers.
Unfortunately, we badly need other environmental groups to follow this courageous example, and start to embrace facts and physics. Rather than fighting physics and physicists—who currently get little love for generating the lion’s share of all clean energy—now would be a good time for our most respected environmental leaders to call a world-wide clean energy détente and start working together to develop 100% clean energy grids to combat global emissions. We need renewables advocates and nuclear advocates to partner for zero emission solutions and for renewables to ditch their ill-conceived “partnership” with natural gas—which is a bridge to climate catastrophe. Yes, clearly there will be some explaining to do to supporters but we firmly believe the now extremely dire fate facing the planet justifies taking this bold risk, as the Union of Concerned Scientists has just done, since what we’ve been doing just hasn’t been working well enough. UCS set a great example, and now more of our trusted environmental leaders should join with them in recognizing the importance of nuclear power to our clean energy future.