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The Clean Energy Workhorse
The Gray Lady Almost Gives Nuclear a Fair Shake

Nuclear power is capable of providing enormous amount of consistent baseload electricity, and it does so without generating any of the local air pollutants or greenhouse gas emissions. Yet greens remain skeptical of—if not downright hostile to—the eco-friendly energy source, and prefer to focus on its risks of catastrophic meltdowns rather than nuclear’s potential benefits. So color us surprised that the New York Times is giving credit to nuclear energy’s green credentials—where credit is so clearly due:

In spite of…lingering issues, policy makers, analysts and executives, along with a growing number of environmentalists, say that at stake is the future of the country’s largest source of clean energy. “Nothing else comes close,” [U.S. energy secretary Ernest Moniz], a nuclear physicist, said at the symposium. In an interview on Tuesday, Mr. Moniz added, “Maintaining the nuclear fleet is really important for meeting our near-term and midterm goals.” […]

Renewable sources like solar and wind have grown in popularity in recent years, but nuclear plants provide nearly 60 percent of carbon-free power, followed by hydroelectric plants at roughly 18 percent, according to theEnergy Information Administration. In addition, nuclear plants, which can produce power steadily and on demand, run at more than 90 percent of their capacity, higher than any other type of plant, including gas and coal facilities.

They also have the advantage of keeping fuel on-site, which allowed them to supply electricity during the extreme cold of the polar vortex in 2014, when the use of natural gas for heating led to shortages and when some coal plants shut down because of frozen fuel or equipment.

It’s nice to see the NYT acknowledging America’s nuclear reactors as the real workhorses in our clean energy stable. Renewables get all the plaudits from environmentalists, but wind and solar energy can’t provide the kind of consistent power that nuclear can—reactors can still run even when the sun stops shining or the wind stops blowing.

But of course the Gray Lady can’t alienate her more enviro-mental readers, and had to include a number of digs in the piece about nuclear power’s “safety concerns”—even inserting that anxiety into the headline. That’s not giving nuclear a fair shake, though. We can acknowledge that nuclear, like any energy source (including those green favorites wind and solar), has risks, but we also ought to contextualize them: you’re exposed to more ionizing radiation eating a banana than you are by spending a year living within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant. The Fukushima Daichi disaster was tragic, but the kind of overreaction that you saw in Germany, which hastened a shutdown of its nuclear fleet in response, was, well, irrational. Japan sits atop a subduction zone and as such has to contend with a number of natural disasters that most places in the world don’t, like volcanism, earthquakes, and as we saw in 2011, tsunamis.

America’s nuclear power plants are aging, and as this generation of reactors approaches the end of its life cycle, the energy source is going to be thrust into the policy debate spotlight as countries around the world decide whether or not to put up the huge sums of money to either retrofit and upgrade them or construct new ones. With a host of promising new technologies beckoning just on the horizon, it would be nice if the public got a clearer view of nuclear power from its media sources.

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