Is Nuclear Power Our Way out of the
Joshua Burg | July 2021
A nuclear power plant in Dampierre-en-Burly, France
or years, experts seeking to find cost-effective and safe alternatives to fossil fuels have debated over the viability and safety of nuclear power. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General, Rafael Mariano Grossi, posited that nuclear energy is “a key enabler of the clean energy transition,” as the world phases out fossil fuels.
On the flip side, many critics cite the inherent dangers in nuclear energy, instead urging an immediate transition to renewable forms of energy production, including wind, solar, and geothermal energy. President Biden seeks carbon neutrality by 2050, and many experts suggest nuclear power as the quickest and most effective means of achieving this. This article will consider whether or not nuclear energy can and should play a key role as the United States phases out fossil fuels.
The State of Nuclear Energy
According to the World Nuclear Association, roughly 445 nuclear power plants are operating across 33 countries as of July of this year– producing roughly 10% of the World’s energy. The U.S. alone operates 56 nuclear power plants across 28 states. However, as China and various other nations accelerated the construction of nuclear power plants, the United States and various other Western nations stagnated in their own production of new plants or have begun to shut down old plants.
In fact, current nuclear reactor projects in Georgia are proving to be billions over budget and years off schedule. An article published by National Geographic, explains how the decades-long pause in constructing new nuclear power plants has led to construction inefficiencies that have led nuclear power costs to be approximately four times as expensive compared to those in Asia. Although the article also cites an MIT study suggesting that standardization of reactors could help to reduce costs, nuclear power is also now in a race against the rapidly declining prices of renewable energy sources.
Projections by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) find that solar and wind energy make up about 70% of new electricity generating capacity in 2021; the aforementioned new nuclear reactor in Georgia, costing billions of dollars, will account for a mere 3%. Yet from 2010 to 2020, the weighted-average levelized cost of electricity for solar photovoltaic power fell by 85%, and the same measure for onshore wind power fell by as much as 56%.
Making nuclear energy even less attractive, research from the Seoul National University of Science & Technology earlier this year found that investment in the renewable energy sector “induced more production, value-added, and wages” relative to investment in nuclear power. This juxtaposition between the high economic costs of investing in nuclear energy with the rapidly decreasing costs of renewable sources seems to project a grim future for nuclear energy.
Some Benefits... but More Costs
That being said, nuclear power holds some advantages over renewable energy sources. For instance, nuclear power has the highest capacity factor– the ability to produce maximum power at any given time of the year– of any energy source (including natural gas). Therefore, nuclear power may be an effective complement to various renewable energy sources, all of which have notably smaller capacity factors. To that end, nuclear energy is, according to the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy, 2.5 to 3.5 times more reliable than wind and solar plants.
However, recent research from the University of Sussex and the ISM International School of Management suggests that investment in nuclear power comes at the cost of a partial crowding out of renewable energy. The researchers found that not only did countries with greater attachments to nuclear power tend to invest less in renewable energy, but also that renewable energy was ultimately more impactful in carbon-emission mitigation. An over-emphasis on nuclear power’s role as a possible complement to renewable power may divert much-needed investment in renewable energy.
Although high-profile nuclear disasters tend to lead the discussion of “the dangers of nuclear power,” these fears are not a reliable argument against greater implementation of nuclear power. In fact, NASA researchers concluded that nuclear power can be attributed to the reduction of global mortality through its past substitution for fossil fuels. On top of that, strict regulations on nuclear power plant operation, particularly in the United States, have made severe failures an almost non-issue, especially since the implementation of stricter regulations following the Three Mile Island disaster. However, even if fears are often overblown, the exact frequency of nuclear accidents is not easily discernible. Due to confidentiality reports with member nations, the IAEA does not issue reports on nuclear incidents, leaving a gap in the knowledge of researchers looking to better understand the true risks and probabilities of nuclear accidents.
A more realistic and measurable risk of nuclear power arises from nuclear waste disposal, which is a topic that deserves an article of its own. Spent fuel from nuclear reactors can remain radioactive for up to 200,000 years, posing a substantial environmental or health risk if not properly disposed of. More than a quarter-million metric tons of highly radioactive nuclear waste from power plants currently sit in temporary storage that cannot contain it for extended periods. If nuclear power plants continue to rack up waste and we still have not begun investing in long-term solutions, further investment in nuclear power will likely not be supplemented with a serious investment in long-term nuclear waste storage/disposal. Failure to implement safe, long-term disposal methods will result in the degradation of temporary storage devices and the slow release of radioactive material from current storage devices.
Considering these various factors, it appears that an energy policy emphasizing the greater implementation of renewables will be more effective at both abating U.S. carbon emissions and maximizing economic output as we divest from fossil fuels. This conclusion seems to be consistent with the Biden administration’s approach to investing in clean energy, and suggests that the recent nuclear plant construction in Georgia may be an exception to the trend of the declining popularity of nuclear power.