In early November, the U.S. Department of Energy chose Westinghouse to build a new, much-needed nuclear-power plant, one that will employ “the most advanced light water reactor in the world.” And that is great news for the people of Poland—that’s where the plant is being built, in Poland, on the Baltic Sea northwest of Gdańsk—and it is a wonderful thing that American technological and financial prowess is going to create some high-paying jobs for Americans building and supplying a state-of-the-art nuclear facility in Europe.
But we’re still waiting for the DOE to announce the construction of new nuclear facilities in the United States, where the need for affordable, reliable, clean energy is at least as strong as it is in Poland. Americans don’t have the same front-row seat on Vladimir Putin’s predations in Ukraine as the Poles do—or the same vulnerability to Russian supply cuts— but with Americans’ home-heating costs expected to leap by almost 30 percent this winter for natural-gas and heating-oil customers, we’re far from insulated from global energy volatility.
And this is not going to be the first hard winter. In February 2021, the power grid in Texas collapsed when unusually cold weather played havoc with the state’s power plants. Hundreds of people died because of that power failure—a power failure right in the middle of the American energy heartland. Some improvements have been made since then, but the federal government still forecasts that a 2021-style winter storm would result in catastrophic failure when demand for power once again exceeds generating capacity.
I was a participant in the 2021 UN climate conference in Glasgow, where I watched high-minded people who earnestly believe that the human race is headed toward an existential crisis bang on drums, consult Buddhist monks, sing the praises of geodesic domes, chant, dance, burn incense—and studiously ignore the representatives from the nuclear-power industry who were in attendance to talk about the only technology that offers a plausible path to sustainable and economical low-carbon power. At this year’s UN climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, they are lamenting the lack of progress towards the ambitious goals affirmed last year—as though Westinghouse’s phone number weren’t in the book.
Nuclear power is not a panacea. But absent political headwinds that have more to do with Cold War-era dread of nuclear weapons than the realities of 21st-century nuclear power, it should be a much bigger part of a power mix that balances economic and environmental concerns reasonably. Nuclear power has about the same carbon footprint as offshore wind, and, once it is up and running, it is as close to a zero-emissions power source as there is. Unlike wind and solar, nuclear is always on—in fact, one of the longstanding technical challenges of nuclear power has been that it is difficult to reduce the output of older plants when supply exceeds demand, a problem that new technologies such as SMRs— “small modular reactors”—promise to mitigate.
Nuclear power is not going to replace diesel, gasoline, or bunker fuel in the foreseeable future, and so it is not going to eliminate the pollution or the greenhouse-gas emissions related to transportation, which is a big piece of the climate picture. What nuclear can do is create affordable, stable electricity in a way that radically reduces the emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases associated with climate change. In Poland, that new nuclear capacity will displace coal. But as the U.S. Energy Information Administration runs the numbers, the United States still relies more heavily on coal than on nuclear power—and still relies on coal for almost as much power as every renewable source combined. And about half of our “green” energy comes from hydroelectric dams, which many environmentalists oppose almost as strongly as they oppose nuclear power.
Notably, the United States has only one new nuclear project under construction, the two reactors being added to Plant Vogtle near Augusta, Ga.
The Biden administration has turned a rhetorical corner on nuclear, declaring that the White House now “recognizes that the development of clean, safe, and reliable nuclear power for partners and allies is essential to addressing the challenges and mitigate the consequences of climate change.” The troubling words there are “partners and allies,” indicating an administration stance that is far more open to nuclear power abroad than at home, where parochial domestic politics based on fearmongering from the 1970s has kept a lid on nuclear power for decades. The Poles are moving forward, and even the Germans, who have followed what is arguably the most irresponsible energy policy in Europe, have changed plans by deciding not to shut off their remaining nuclear power. And every single net-zero emissions scenario spelled out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2021 report includes nuclear power as a component of a sustainable energy mix.
Read the full article at USA Today.