If you are following the news, you have probably seen more climate issues in the headlines, on social media and even on television shows. Most recently, the Democratic presidential debates and CNN Climate Town Hall provided a platform for candidates to share their energy policies. One topic of contention is the role of nuclear carbon-free energy in helping to solve climate change.
While there is a growing consensus by scientists and voices within the environmental community that nuclear energy is essential for decarbonization, it’s clear that the Democratic candidates are not on the same page when it comes to nuclear energy. And the media has picked up on the divide:
- New York Magazine: On Climate, Sanders and Warren Must Go Nuclear
- The Washington Post: Don’t trust candidates who ignore nuclear power
- The Verge: Democrats are divided on using nuclear power to stop climate change
Thankfully, these disagreements have left room for more comprehensive and honest conversations around nuclear, which are long-overdue.
As the field of Democratic candidates begins to narrow, it’s important to set the record straight on nuclear. Here are three of the most common misconceptions that you should be on the watch for as debates continue:
- Until we can solve the waste issue, nuclear energy isn’t a good option. The waste issue dates back decades ago when the federal government agreed to take ownership of nuclear waste and find a solution to permanently store it. Unfortunately, the politics on how best to manage it led to a stalemate, leaving nuclear plant owners responsible for managing it at the expense of tax payers.What’s frustrating is this issue has already been solved. Scientific research says the most viable solution is to store used fuel at a geological repository like Yucca Mountain. But to move forward with Yucca Mountain, Congress must grant funding to complete the process.
In the meantime, the nuclear industry knows exactly where its waste is, and it’s safely contained (which can’t be said for all energy sources). Nuclear plant owners store their used fuel on-site based on stringent requirements set by the government. Plus, there isn’t really much used fuel out there. Nearly seven decades of waste from using nuclear power would only cover a football field to a depth of less than 10 yards.
Ultimately, losing nuclear power—the largest source of carbon-free electricity in the United States—because of a political issue would set us back in reaching our climate goals.
- Nuclear energy isn’t safe. Bill Gates, an advocate of nuclear energy, has said that the safety record of the nuclear industry is unmatched by any other energy source. And he’s right. Safety is engrained in the culture of every nuclear plant.America’s nuclear power plants have an excellent track record and are among the safest and most secure industrial facilities in the country. And the nuclear industry has a tough, independent regulator that ensures they stay that way.
Some opponents point to Chernobyl or other events like Three Mile Island (TMI) or Fukushima as reasons to phase out nuclear. But what happened at Chernobyl simply could not happen here. That event was the product of a faulty reactor design not used in the U.S. and the failing political system of the former Soviet Union. Even the showrunner of HBO’s Chernobyl has said this.
In the cases of TMI or Fukushima, those events moved the industry toward new requirements that are integrated in today’s operations. In an era when nuclear energy plays a necessary role in lowering carbon emissions, the industry’s commitment to safe operations remains ironclad.
- We don’t need nuclear. 100 percent renewable energy can meet our climate goals. A diverse group of organizations such as the UN climate body, the World Resources Institute and the Union of Concerned Scientists have all said nuclear energy is necessary if we are going to lower carbon emissions in time to protect the climate.On top of that, nuclear energy is responsible for more than 55 percent of the country’s carbon-free electricity. Replacing that much clean power with enough renewable generation would be extremely difficult. According to a report by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, “finding a dependable, zero-emitting, cost-effective alternative to nuclear power is challenging.”
An all of the above approach that combines intermittent low-carbon sources, such as wind and solar, with around-the-clock sources, such as nuclear energy, is the most effective approach to reduce carbon emissions.
It’s not up for debate. Many voters agree that climate is a top issue. That’s why as we move closer to the 2020 presidential election the climate conversation should continue to include nuclear energy if candidates are as serious about lowering carbon emissions as they claim.