Should We Let Nuclear Lose the War Against “Freedom Gas”?

“Megan, have you watched Chernobyl yet?” I heard this question over and over again until a few months ago, I finally succumbed to the peer pressure and binge-watched HBO’s miniseries, Chernobyl. The series tells a dramatized account about how lies, deceit, and political fear led to the 1986 Soviet Union nuclear reactor meltdown and the cleanup process that followed. The portrayal of all the brutal ways the high radiation exposure affected people from the total body burns, to miscarriages and terminal cancer was harrowing and honestly, made this series a difficult watch. Despite feeling constantly on edge for the characters who tried to unravel the truth behind the explosion, I was deeply drawn into the plot. After finishing the series, my curiosity about nuclear energy was piqued, and I began to wonder, what’s up with nuclear today?

Unit 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, damaged by the overheating of the reactor core which released radioactive material across the USSR and Western Europe. (Photo courtesy: Dana Sacchetti/IAEA)

 

Turns out the U.S. nuclear energy industry is on the chopping block. With the ever-present threat of climate change looming over us, one would think the world would be eagerly expanding this proven carbon-free energy source. Compared to renewable wind and solar energy, nuclear offers reliable, consistent power which is good news for those of us who don’t like experiencing power outages. Nuclear is also a highly efficient energy source. Plants operate on average at a capacity of 85%, which sounds like a miracle compared to the 50-60% operating capacity of fossil fuel powered plants, or the 30% of wind and solar. And unlike far-fetched geoengineering schemes such as carbon capture and sequestration, nuclear technology is here and it is robust.

What’s causing nuclear’s decline?

Yes, poor public perception is part of nuclear’s problem and HBO’s frightening portrayal of Chernobyl didn’t do the industry any favors. In fact, the show sparked so much concern that the Nuclear Energy Institute released a Chernobyl fact sheet to help viewers tell fact from fiction. However, a U.S. public opinion poll recently found that Americans are actually evenly split in support and opposition to nuclear energy. 

What’s really putting the nail in the coffin for nuclear energy is record low natural gas prices in part from the U.S. fracking boom. Nuclear can no longer stay cost competitive. This has resulted in the closure of six plants since 2013 with nine more set to retire by 2025 and an additional 16 labelled as “at risk” for bankruptcy. Many plants are closing at around 40 years of age before realizing their full potential lifespan of 80 years, which is a bummer because they’re so expensive to construct in the first place. In total, these plant closures represent 15% of all low-carbon energy in the U.S.

Operating status of nuclear plants across the U.S. (Source: Carbon Brief)

 

With each plant that goes offline, what’s filling the newly created energy void? Largely, the ever-cheaper natural gas. Yes, some renewables can fill the gap but in their current state, they are too variable to provide a one-to-one replacement. So it’s mostly more natural gas that comes online. This feels like a big step backwards towards reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating global warming. Natural gas, recently coined as “freedom gas”, is a better alternative than other fossil fuels such as coal and diesel but it still emits 117 lbs of CO2 per million Btu of energy generated. In fact, this 15% loss in nuclear energy equates to an annual loss of roughly 88 million metric tons of avoided CO2 emissions, equivalent to bringing 23 new coal-fired power plants online for a year or adding 18 million new cars on the road annually.

Climate change aside, the human health impacts associated with the rise in burning of fossil fuels is of equal cause for concern. A study from the University of Washington estimated that the closure of three nuclear plants in the Northeast could result in an average increase of 126 deaths per year due to increased exposure to particulate matter, sulfate, nitrates, and other toxic pollutants. When air pollution exposure and accidents are both taken into account, nuclear actually has the lowest death rate per unit of energy produced. Based on these statistics, living within the vicinity of a nuclear reactor seems way better than living downwind of a fossil fuel powered plant.

Per unit of energy produced, nuclear energy has the lowest death rate. (Source: Hanna Ritchie, Our World in Data)

What can save nuclear?

Even without taking low natural gas prices into account, the U.S. nuclear fleet is aging and will soon need to invest in pricey repairs to continue operations. Meanwhile, under their  current design, any construction of a new nuclear plant requires a large up-front investment. However, private companies such as Rolls Royce are hoping to change this by developing and installing mini nuclear reactors. Known as Small Modular Reactors, these reactors cut costs by being mass manufactured in a factory, trucked out, and assembled on site.

Cooling tower of the abandoned Satsop nuclear plant in Elma, WA. Construction of the plant was 76% complete before it was halted due to the rising costs for ratepayers. (Photo courtesy: Leah Quinn)

 

As the free market puts nuclear on the line, executive intervention may be it’s saving grace. In Trump’s fiscal year 2021 budget request, his administration seeks to make nuclear a national priority by asking for increased funds to modernize nuclear energy technology to bolster our nation’s energy security. For an administration known for overturning environmental protections, this might actually be one the biggest stride’s our nation makes towards achieving carbon-neutrality. And it’s not just Trump; nuclear has also found bipartisan support in Congress. Since 2018, four pro-nuclear bills have been introduced to the floor of Congress and two have already passed and been signed into law.

With so much technological promise and government support, it seems nuclear energy has not tossed in the towel to natural gas yet. From nuclear, to natural gas, to renewables, determining the mix of energy our nation wants to pursue, is hard. There are a lot of pros and cons and hidden externalities to weigh. But time is running short for the world to cut out all greenhouse gas emissions and nuclear can be part of the solution to get us there. I personally believe nuclear power is worth saving. Do you?