ORn April 30, the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant 30 miles north of New York City it was closed. For decades, the facility provided the vast majority of the city’s carbon-free electricity, as well as good union jobs for nearly 1,000 people. Federal regulators had deemed the plant perfectly safe.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a key figure behind the measure, said the closure of Indian Point brought us “one great step closer to achieving our aggressive clean energy goals.” It is difficult to reconcile that optimism with the data that has been published recently. The first full month without the plant has seen an increase of 46% in the average carbon intensity of electricity generation statewide compared to when Indian Point was fully operational. New York replaced Indian Point’s clean energy with fossil fuel sources like natural gas.
It’s a nightmare that we should have seen coming. In Germany, nuclear power made up about a third of the country’s power generation in 2000, when a campaign led by the Green Party managed to secure the gradual shutdown of plants, citing health and safety concerns. Last year, that share fell to 11%, and all the remaining stations are scheduled to close next year. A recent article found that the last two decades of phased nuclear shutdowns led to an increase in CO2 emissions from 36.3 megatons per year – with the increase in air pollution that can kill 1,100 people a year.
Like New York, Germany combined its transition from nuclear power with a promise spend more aggressively on renewable energy. However, the country’s first plant closures meant an increase in carbon emissions, as the production gap was immediately filled through the construction of new coal plants. Similarly, in New York the void will be filled in part with the construction of three new gas plants. For Germans, investing in renewables eventually paid dividends, but largely replaced the production of old nuclear plants rather than reducing existing fossil fuel consumption. The carbon intensity of German electricity is higher than the EU average.
However, even a more aggressive investment in renewable energy would not have solved Germany’s problem. There is only one handful of big economies that they have already mostly decarbonized their networks; They all have a nuclear or hydro power base (or both), and then to a greater or lesser degree they add renewables like wind and solar on top. This is because nuclear and hydropower can provide electricity whenever we need it. These “steady” sources of clean electricity don’t need to wait for the sun to shine or the wind to blow to power our hospital fans. Batteries and other forms of energy storage are great, and we need a lot more research and development funding to make them even better, but until big technological advances are made, sustainability is hampered by the need for a cooperative climate.
In other parts of the world, even where we have been investing in renewable technology, without nuclear power or without the proper geography to enable hydropower, we have had no choice but to rely on fossil fuels to fill the gap.
So why, given the risks of global warming, is there still so much hostility towards nuclear power?
There are some legitimate concerns about nuclear waste, but public perception is based on outdated information.
To be sure, some of the paranoia is rooted in Cold War-era associations between peaceful nuclear energy and dangerous nuclear weapons. We can and must separate these two, just as we can separate nuclear bombs from nuclear medicine. And we should also reject popular narratives about Chernobyl and other disasters that simply cannot be reproduced with modern technology. Advanced reactors and many of the existing ones are designed with passive safety systems; they do not need the active intervention of humans or a computer to deactivate themselves in an emergency. Instead, these plants use natural forces like gravity to deactivate them, while maintaining active monitoring for backup. Like the science journalist Leigh Phillips says so, “It is not physically more possible for them to melt than it is for the balls to spontaneously roll up the hill.”
There are some legitimate concerns about nuclear waste, but public perception is based on outdated information. The amount of waste produced by plants has been drastically reduced and most of what remains can be recycled to generate more electricity. These concerns are not unique to nuclear power either. Renewable energy produces its own waste: solar energy, for example, requires heavy metals such as cadmium, lead and arsenic, which, unlike nuclear waste, do not lose their toxicity over time. As an article in Science Points out: “Today’s electric vehicle batteries are not really designed for recycling” and could pose public health concerns as battery cells deteriorate in landfills.
Other objections to nuclear power, such as its reliance on mining, are also not unique to nuclear power. Renewables require destructive mining to unearth lithium and other critical minerals. The answer to those concerns is simple: we must demand environmental and labor regulations from the state and uphold good working conditions as our top consideration. But opposing socially necessary extraction on principle is simply not compatible with the desire to live in a world that can meet basic human needs.
I am not the only one expressing these feelings. Beyond just preserving existing nuclear facilities, American support for the construction of new plants is now 50%, notably higher than in previous years. On the political left, in particular, where opposition to nuclear power first catalyzed decades ago, there seems to be a change underway. After an initial hesitation, Alexander Ocasio-Cortez has said his Green New Deal Let the door open for nuclear energy. More brazen was the support for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labor Party, former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and the former eco-socialist president of Bolivia, Evo Morales.
Nuclear is an idea whose time has come and seemed to have passed, but which may in fact have a future. For those of us looking for a solution to climate change, the least we can ask for is that no plant like Indian Power closes until we have a clean, reliable and scalable alternative.