The modern environmental movement harbors a deep and old resentment of nuclear power, dating all the way back to its inception in the 1960s, but this grudge is looking downright hypocritical these days, now that climate change is by far the biggest green cause. That’s because nuclear power is one of the world’s only sources of zero-emissions baseload power—it releases no greenhouse gases, and unlike wind or solar, it can be consistently counted on to supply the grid, regardless of weather conditions or time of day. Nuclear power has never gotten the credit it deserves for being the global green power workhorse, but as older reactors reach the end of their life cycles, we could soon start to understand just how much work these plants have been doing to mitigate emissions. Lamar Alexander and Sheldon Whitehouse write for the New York Times:
Already, 60 percent of our carbon-free electricity comes from the 99 nuclear reactors that dot the nation’s map, from Avila Beach, Calif., to Seabrook, N.H. These reactors provide low-cost, reliable electricity for the United States, which uses nearly 20 percent of the world’s electricity. But over the next decade, at least eight of these reactors are scheduled to shut down. That will push up carbon emissions from the American electricity sector by nearly 3 percent, according to the United States Energy Information Administration.
In California, the closing of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in 2012 contributed to a 24 percent increase in carbon emissions from the electricity sector, according to data from the California Environmental Protection Agency Air Resources Board. Carbon emissions from the electricity sector in New England rose 5 percent in 2015, the first year-to-year increase since 2010, largely because of the closing of the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station in December 2014, according to ISO New England, the region’s grid operator.
In roughly two decades, the United States could lose about half its reactors. That’s because, by 2038, 50 reactors will be at least 60 years old, and will face having to close, representing nearly half of the nuclear generating capacity in the United States. Without them, or enough new reactors to replace them, it will be much harder to reduce carbon emissions that contribute to climate change.
There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about nuclear power’s future, though. A whole host of exciting new technologies are currently under development, including thorium-fueled reactors, and reactors that use molten salt as a medium, rather than water. These new nuclear advancements promise to make the energy source safer, smaller (and potentially modular), and less productive of nuclear waste. They represent some of the most exciting energy pipe dreams we’re currently aware of, and they could hold the key to supplying humanity with the electricity it needs without wreaking havoc on the climate or environment.
Donald Trump recently made headlines by calling for an expansion of U.S. nuclear weapons capabilities, but there’s another type of nuclear—namely nuclear power—that is in desperate need of a renaissance. Private backers like Bill Gates have been investing heavily in the next generation of nuclear reactors, but continued and even expanded government support for these technologies, and for this energy source more generally, will be vital to the cause of creating the sustainable energy mix of the future.