Even before Russia invaded Ukraine, governments should have been investing in nuclear power. Demand for electricity was still growing, and the climate crisis was still accelerating. Now, with Europe trying to wean itself off Russian gas as quickly as possible, we find ourselves in a situation reminiscent of the 1970s oil crisis, when European countries built nuclear power plants to reduce their dependence on Middle Eastern oil. That period in Europe remains the fastest-ever expansion of clean energy.
Today, given the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, there’s an even stronger case to be made for nuclear energy. In the United States, where fossil fuels continue to be cheap and abundant, Washington has been spending to prolong the life of nuclear power plants and incentivizing the construction of new, advanced nuclear technologies. In California, long a hotbed of antinuclear sentiment, Governor Gavin Newsom reversed his position and moved to extend the life of the state’s sole remaining nuclear plant because of concerns about the reliability of the electrical grid.
Keeping existing nuclear plants running may be an acceptable compromise in the short term. (Even Greta Thunberg has thrown her support behind it.) But in the long term, nuclear power will be critical for reducing carbon emissions and, in turn, our reliance on authoritarian regimes. Nuclear power offers several benefits that are impossible to get from renewable energy.
It’s become a tired refrain among advocates for nuclear energy to point out that the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow. Yet while improvements in electricity storage such as batteries can help balance the daily fluctuations in supply, study after study shows that having nuclear energy makes decarbonizing the grid easier and cheaper.
More important, because sources of wind and solar energy are geographically dispersed, adding large amounts of these renewables to our power grids will require more transmission lines, which are becoming increasingly difficult to site. A 2020 Princeton University study found that meeting US energy demands with renewables would require a quintupling of transmission capacity. In contrast, nuclear plants can be built close to where the power is needed and more easily take advantage of existing power lines.
Over the past decade, more than 600 coal plants have been shuttered in the US, and nuclear power can take advantage of the existing infrastructure at these sites. Indeed, advanced nuclear companies are looking to do just that. NuScale Power is planning to build a six-pack of small modular reactors in Idaho to power nearby municipal utilities that are looking to replace aging coal plants. The Bill Gates–backed company TerraPower is set to construct a sodium-cooled reactor at the site of a retiring coal plant in Kemmerer, Wyo., and the company is looking at five additional projects at or near retiring fossil-fueled sites across the American West.
Globally, the potential for coal-to-nuclear repowering is immense. There are more than 4,000 coal power plants in operation—all of which will need to stop spewing CO2 by 2050 to meet our climate goals. One study in Poland found that up-front capital costs for new nuclear power projects are 30 percent lower at old coal plants than at fresh sites. Such repowering could also contribute to a just energy transition by providing well-paid jobs to former coal workers.
Although we think of nuclear power plants as being prone to long construction delays, nuclear has historically been the fastest low-carbon technology to scale up. The United Arab Emirates broke ground on its first nuclear power plant in 2012, and three of its four units are already generating electricity. When the fourth is fully operational, the UAE could get as much as 30 percent of its annual electricity from nuclear power. (Before this, it got 96 percent of its electricity from fossil fuels.)
Nuclear energy takes up significantly less land than any other electricity-generating technology. Ironically, this may be why people underestimate its contribution to the grid: You see solar panels and wind turbines everywhere, but how often do you drive past a nuclear power plant?
And while the United States may seem to have plenty of land for renewable energy generation, projects that take up large amounts of space face more opposition from local communities. In 31 states, residents and state legislatures have fought new renewable energy projects, resulting in more than 100 ordinances that restrict or block their development.
Many progressive critiques of nuclear energy are valid, but given the reality of climate change, the need for independence from Russian fossil fuels, and increasing energy demands, there is now a moral imperative to invest in all of our clean energy options—and that includes nuclear.
The case against nuclear power and for genuinely renewable energy has never been so conclusive.
Critics’ original concern about nuclear power, namely its safety, remains paramount. The two most catastrophic meltdowns, in 1986 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Soviet Union and in 2011 at the Fukushima site in Japan, had repercussions that still haunt those regions. But these mega-disasters are only the best known. There have been 33 serious incidents at nuclear power stations worldwide since 1952—two in France and six in the US.
And then there’s the 80-year-old saga of nuclear waste. Currently, there are more than a quarter-million metric tons of spent fuel rods sitting aboveground, usually in cooling pools at both closed-down and operative nuclear plants.
In northern Europe, the Finns claim they’ve solved that issue by digging 1,400 feet into the bedrock of an uninhabited island in the Gulf of Bothnia. The $3.4 billion undertaking, the first permanent repository in the world for nuclear waste, will eventually hold all of Finland’s spent nuclear refuse—less than 1 percent of the world’s accumulated radioactive remnants—until about 2100. This highly radioactive mass will, its operators promise, remain catacombed for 100,000 years. In light of Finland’s small volume of radioactive waste, the full lifetime price tag of nearly $8 billion is significantly more per ton than the estimated $34.9 billion, $19.8 billion, and $96 billion that France, Germany, and the United States, respectively, will shell out for nuclear waste management.
Even given these safety concerns, the knockout arguments against the nuclear industry today are the reactors’ cost and deployment time. The greatest barrier to the proclaimed renaissance of nuclear power—and it is primarily talk, not investment—is its inability to deliver affordable power on time and on budget.
Nuclear energy involves such colossal expense—into the tens of billions of dollars, like the $30 billion cost for the Vogtle units in Waynesboro, Ga.—that few private investors will touch it, even with prodigious government bankrolling. So catastrophic are the cost overruns of the French nuclear company EDF’s projects worldwide that the company could no longer service its €43 billion debt, and this year it agreed to full nationalization. But experts say this alone won’t solve any of the fundamental problems at EDF’s Hinkley C plant in England or its Flamanville plant in Normandy, which is 10 years behind schedule, with costs five times in excess of the original budget. Cost overruns are one reason that one in eight new reactor projects that start construction are abandoned.
While safety concerns drive up the cost of nuclear plant insurance, the price of renewables is predicted to sink by almost 50 percent by 2030. Study after study attests that wind and solar are three to eight times cheaper than nuclear power.
In the face of an ever more cataclysmic climate crisis that demands solutions now, the build-out of nuclear power is also painfully, prohibitively slow. In Europe, just one nuclear reactor has been planned, commissioned, financed, constructed, and put online since 2000. That’s Finland’s Olkiluoto-3, which was connected to the national grid in March 2022. Europe’s flagship nuclear projects, called European Pressurized Reactors, have been dogged by delays from the start. The Olkiluoto-3 reactor, which had been scheduled to go online in 2009, still isn’t heating homes even though it’s now connected to the grid. Globally, the average construction time—which doesn’t include the planning, licensing, site preparation, and arranging of finances—is about a decade.
Small-scale modular reactors, advanced with funding during the Obama administration, are supposedly the industry’s savior. Purportedly quicker to build, with factory-made parts, they generate at most a 10th of the energy of a conventional reactor. Yet they have many of the same problems. Reports show that they are even slower to deploy than conventional reactors and more expensive per kilowatt capacity.
Finally, nuclear supporters claim that the massive baseload supply that reactors provide when they’re up and running is just what systems that rely on weather-based renewables need during down times. In fact, nuclear energy is the opposite of what decentralized clean energy systems require.
Renewables and nuclear energy don’t mix well in one system, according to Toby Couture of the Berlin-based think tank E3 Analytics. “What renewables need is not so-called baseload power,” he told me, “which is inflexible and unable to ramp up and down, but flexible, nimble supply provided by the likes of storage capacity, smart grids, demand management, and a growing toolbox of other mechanisms—not the large and inflexible supply of nuclear reactors.”
Renewables, clean tech, and energy-efficiency measures are easy to roll out, cost-effective, and safe. Let’s concentrate on deploying these alternatives as fast as we can to decarbonize our world before the impacts of climate change overwhelm us.