Nuclear power is essential in fighting climate change

3rd February, 2022.      //   Climate Change  // 

Nuclear Power 101 | NRDC

After the disasters at Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011, turning away from nuclear power seemed prudent. Now it looks like a serious error — and not just because global energy costs happen to be spiking. Over the next several decades, an orderly, affordable and politically sustainable transition to zero-carbon electricity is likely to require a much bigger nuclear component.

On plausible estimates, nuclear power is roughly as clean and safe as wind or solar — and vastly cleaner and safer than biomass, gas, oil or coal. Like any such technology, it poses challenges, but with a sufficient commitment of effort and resources, these can be overcome. The sooner this is understood, the better the world’s chances of winning the war against climate change.

The immediate consequences of Europe’s flight from nuclear prove the point. Wholesale energy prices have increased by a factor of four since the start of the pandemic, and there might be worse to come. Germany, note, has been leading this retreat. It will shut down the last of its nuclear capacity this year. Aside from the shock of higher costs, Germany’s sudden dependence on gas from Russia has undermined the Western alliance and led the German government to outright appeasement of President Vladimir Putin as he threatens war against Ukraine.

Keeping existing nuclear plants operating is one thing — but what about building new capacity? Skeptics say investments in wind and solar will make this unnecessary. Maybe, but it’s a gamble. For it to pay off, wind and solar will have to keep getting cheaper and the world will need radically improved storage technologies. Given what’s at stake, it would be wrong to dismiss alternatives — not just nuclear, which is proven, but carbon capture and other potentially helpful technologies as well.

Nuclear’s opponents also say that it will take too long to make a difference, and that new plants are expensive, hard to build, and subject to protracted planning and other delays. All these difficulties are real, but since they’re partly the result of policy, better policy can address them.
Nuclear power is less expensive than it looks, once you take into account the high social cost of carbon. The more policy makers think in terms of efficient pricing, and ideally turn to an explicit carbon tax, the easier it will be to compare costs intelligently. Wind, solar and investments in energy efficiency can be cheaper still — all of these are needed — but supplies of wind and solar fluctuate, whereas nuclear provides reliable baseload power.
Nuclear plants are hard to build partly because the industry’s forced decline has caused the relevant skills and experience to atrophy. Using small modular reactors — which governments could support with tax and other incentives — more of the components could be built in factories rather than on-site, thus speeding construction and reducing costs. Planning delays reflect the post-Fukushima consensus, as expressed in endless new red tape, that adding nuclear capacity is foolish. If that prejudice is wrong, and seen to be wrong, the rules can be changed.

The prejudice against nuclear is indeed wrong — and dangerously so. Nuclear power can make a vital contribution to fighting climate change. Without further delay, governments need to acknowledge this truth and act on it.

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