Opinion: Nuclear Power Is the Best Climate-Change Solution by Far

Wall Street Journal • 11-04-21 • By Andrew I. Fillat and Henry I. Miller
Politics seems to have become inimical to critical thinking, and nowhere is this more obvious than climate change. Politicians peddle apocalypse and demand that Americans accept skyrocketing gasoline and home heating costs, rolling blackouts and brownouts, endless subsidies for uneconomic vehicles and power generation, and on and on.

Wishful thinking and flawed assumptions are the order of the day. Climate models assume that humans will fail to adapt to changing conditions, instead allowing floodwaters to rise unabated, wildfires to burn, and farms to fail. The U.S. contribution to global greenhouse-gas emissions is substantial but falling. By 2025, it could be 14% to 18% below 2005 levels. The U.S. should not put on a self-destructive show for the rest of the world.

Either for ideology or profit, climate activists promote wind and solar solutions despite the enormous carbon footprint to manufacture them, their intermittent energy production, and the monstrous cost and pollution required to manufacture and dispose of batteries for green backup. But the single greatest sin is the demonization of nuclear power, including the shutdown of existing nuclear plants that remain serviceable. Moreover, significant advances in nuclear power plant design that have improved efficiency and safety have been ignored.

Jacopo Buongiorno, a nuclear-engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has calculated that over the life cycle of power plants, which includes construction, mining, transport, operation, decommissioning and disposal of waste, the greenhouse-gas emissions for nuclear power are 1/700th those of coal, 1/400th of gas, and one-fourth of solar. Nuclear also requires 1/2,000th as much land as wind and around 1/400th as much as solar. For any given power output, the amount of raw material used to build a nuclear plant is a small fraction of an equivalent solar or wind farm. Although nuclear waste is obviously more difficult to dispose of, its volume is 1/10,000th that of solar and 1/500th of wind. This includes abandoned infrastructure and all the toxic substances that end up in landfills. One person’s lifetime use of nuclear power would produce about a half-ounce of waste. Even including the Chernobyl disaster, human mortality from coal is 2,000 to 3,000 times that of nuclear, while oil claims 400 times as many lives.

Although the federal government tends to resist nuclear power, many nuclear technologies are being investigated and funded by private capital including molten-salt reactors, liquid-metal reactors, advanced small modular reactors, microreactors and much more. More than 70 development projects are under way in the U.S., with many designs intended to create assembly-line construction facilities to simplify and standardize testing, licensing and installations. One appealing approach is to replace large-scale facilities with many smaller but safer, cheaper and more-manageable ones. The $10 billion 10-year planning and implementation cycle for a large nuclear plant can be cut in half with a small modular reactor and another half with a microreactor.

We could deploy SMRs today if we could surmount the negative propaganda about the nuclear industry. Microreactors could generate between 1 and 20 megawatts of power (enough to provide electricity to 500 to 20,000 homes) while needing to refuel only once every five to 10 years. They are air-cooled, capable of being shut down rapidly with no risk of radioactive release and occupy small spaces.

If we can get past the political hurdles, microreactors can be used in diverse applications such as charging stations for electrical vehicles and propulsion for large commercial ships. They could also power data centers, large factories, desalination plants and more. Heat generation is essential for many manufacturing processes, and microreactors can provide that directly without burning fossil fuels. It is worth noting that the U.S. Navy has employed shipboard nuclear reactors for more than 50 years with no significant problems or mishaps.

Nuclear power is cheap, efficient, extremely reliable and nearly carbon-free. New designs, including smaller reactors, drastically reduce the risk of large-scale radioactive contamination.

We need to stop wasting trillions of dollars on strategies that punish American citizens and businesses while China and India increase their greenhouse-gas emissions. The U.S. could set an example for the world with the ultimate infrastructure project: building and deploying advanced nuclear-power plants that painlessly accelerate our decarbonization. Sacrifice isn’t always the path to progress.

Mr. Fillat, an electrical engineer, has worked for technology venture-capital and information-technology companies. Dr. Miller is a physician and molecular biologist, and a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute.