We Need a Nuclear New Deal, Not a Green New Deal

In July, presidential candidate Joe Biden released his climate and infrastructure plan, “The Biden Plan to Build a Modern, Sustainable Infrastructure and an Equitable Clean Energy Future.” From the automotive industry, to infrastructure, to addressing racial inequality, to labor protections, to a massive renewable energy build out, Biden aims to remake the American industrial base, right past wrongs, and generate a gobsmacking 10 million “good union jobs” in the process. For comparison, the Works Progress Administration under the New Deal created 8.5 million jobs. 

Biden’s capacious plan has raised eyebrows. Some believe it speaks to his “deceptive radicalism;” others rightly point out that he’s “endorsed the Green New Deal in all but name.” Both Biden’s plan and the Green New Deal rely heavily on “variable renewables” (i.e. wind and solar, the output of which varies with the weather) to decarbonize the economy. Renewables like solar and wind, which don’t create greenhouse gas emissions, play a starring role in what is called an “energy mix”: a combination of existing nuclear energy, variable renewables, hydropower, and biomass. Unfortunately, the view of renewables as a naturally harmonious, carbon-neutral technology is more romantic than scientific.

Take California as an example. Since 2001, the state has sought to replace its fossil fuel energy with renewables. The subsequent instability of their electrical grid caused blackouts during a heatwave this August; when wildfires broke out the following month, a blanket of ash blotted out the sun in some places, cutting the state’s solar energy output by one-third. 

Any climate plan that doesn’t prioritize nuclear is destined to exacerbate climate problems.

But the grid’s efficacy is only part of the problem. Energy in California is incredibly expensive for ratepayers, despite the declining cost of wind and solar installations. Since the state further expanded its variable renewables portfolio between 2011 and 2019, consumer electricity prices have leapt 30%. 

California could be a preview of what American life will look like if Biden’s plan or the Green New Deal succeeds, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Had California spent its money on nuclear energy instead of renewables, it could have decarbonized by now. That is why any climate plan that doesn’t prioritize nuclear above all other energy sources is destined to exacerbate climate problems rather than solve them. 

Nuclear Superiority

Much of the anxiety about nuclear energy is due to the displacement of Cold War-era fears of military nuclear weapons. Fortunately, despite their shared history and basic science, nuclear weapons and civilian nuclear energy couldn’t be more dissimilar. Reactors from civilian plants don’t blow up like atomic bombs and nuclear waste isn’t a glowing toxic ooze.

Throughout seven decades of service, nuclear power has consistently been proven to be safer than every other mass scale form of energy production. In one year, residents who live near a nuclear power plant are exposed to less radiation than anyone who has eaten a single banana. Though it may sound counterintuitive, because elements such as uranium and plutonium have such long half-lives, the radiation they emit is low enough to safely hold in your hand. Nuclear is also far and away the most reliable form of energy generation in the US, which makes it ideal for providing baseload power for the electrical grid. Nuclear reactors routinely spend years in continuous operation. The current fleet of nuclear power plants have no technical limits that prevent them from being in service for 80 years, if not a century.

Waste from the entire history of American nuclear power can fit within an area the size of a football field.

Many nuclear advocates direct attention to the innovative (though pointedly market-based) nuclear technology breakthroughs that always seem to be years away from commercialization and are dependent on massive, inconstant government grants. As impressive and potentially useful as these developments may be, many existing reactors in the global fleet have capabilities that could be considered “advanced” in and of themselves: the currently operating BN-800 plant in Russia is a fast breeder reactor, which means it can use nuclear waste as fuel, and the 1950s design CANDU reactor is small enough to be considered “modular” and can also use unenriched uranium or thorium as fuel. Nuclear power works now and works well. 

Probably the biggest bugbear for anti-nuclear environmentalists is the question of radioactive waste disposal. But not all nuclear waste is created equal; in fact, most is composed of low-level waste (LLW) made up of protective clothing, cleaning materials, equipment, and tools exposed to neutron radiation. LLW accounts for 90% of nuclear waste by volume but only 1% of its total radioactivity and can be disposed of safely and permanently. After about half a decade of providing carbon-free energy in the reactor core, the uranium fuel itself must be replaced. This high-level waste (HLW) is the highly radioactive and long-living stuff that you see caricatured in popular imagination. Yet this type of waste comprises only 3% of total nuclear waste. To put this in perspective, all of the waste from the entire history of American nuclear power plants can fit within an area the size of a football field, 50 feet high—half the height of a single wind turbine. 

Graphic provided by Erik Vogt

Meanwhile, weather-dependent renewables require 400-450 times the land to produce the same amount of electricity as nuclear. Leveling an area of land larger than almost a third of all U.S. states for energy production might be an acceptable compromise to some, but it does not solve the weather-dependent nature of those sources. Further complicating matters is the fact renewable energy must be stored for later, which requires the use of lithium batteries. But the sheer scale of mining and land use required, and the fact that it involves the domination and exploitation of predominantly developing countries, makes the choice not only inefficient, but unethical. With the abundant uranium reserves already in the United States today, we have the capacity to cultivate an industry to domestically fuel our reactors right now.

The Nuclear New Deal

No nuclear energy program has ever launched without heavy state intervention—the capital costs are just too high for private entities to take on. The Biden campaign says it wants to rely on “innovation” and “rapid commercialization” to drive down costs for nuclear energy, but that means praying to the gods of Silicon Valley for rain. 

The price-trolling is disingenuous. Other countries, especially those that at least partially subsidize their nuclear industries pay less than we do for nuclear. Russia’s Rosatom, for example, benefits from its industrial capacity and experience, the two ingredients necessary for cheaper nuclear production. Unlike most industries, innovation actually makes nuclear more expensive. As researchers Michel Berthélemy and Lina Escobar Rangel have pointed out, construction costs can only be reduced by mass-producing identical reactors, assembly-line style.

In order for this to work in the United States, the federal government could consolidate the nuclear arms of General Atomics, General Electric, Westinghouse, and others into a single public corporation. This federal entity would be mandated to decarbonize the American electricity grid. 

First, the US will need to commit to an industrial policy like those of France and South Korea, which allowed them to create their own nuclear programs to manufacture the necessary reactors. These reactors (and their plants) will need to be standardized if they’re going to recoup the aforementioned benefits of repetitive construction. A substantial number of new reactors will need to be built per year, so American industry would have to increase its construction capacity, especially to provide the necessary heavy forging. Reactors already in service should undergo safety reviews that extend their licensing. They should also undergo refurbishment and retrofitting with technical upgrades to increase efficiency and safety. Alongside the reactor buildout, a strong domestic fuel cycle industry to provide the uranium would need to be developed.

Second, the US will have to train a workforce. Staffing these new plants would strain the capacity of the currently existing nuclear engineering programs in both academia and industry, which need to pass along decades of expertise to a new generation of nuclear workers. In the original spirit of the National Defense Education Act of 1958, the federal government should forgo market incentives and directly award government grants to higher education institutions, vocational schools, and students in nuclear energy and related fields to scale up along with the growing industry as quickly as possible. Not counting construction, and taking the Diablo Canyon plant as a model, an estimated 250,000 workers will be needed to operate some 230 of these plants in perpetuity

If the American rollout of its 21st century nuclear fleet is in line with historical nuclearizations, the annual decarbonization rate should end up being 0.5% less than the 5% per-year “carbon law” emissions reduction suggested by  the Stockholm Resilience Centre. This steep rate would reduce the risk of blowing past our carbon budget to stay under 2°C by 2050.

But the emissions reduction does not stop there. Once the energy grid is nuclear and carbon-free, we could then turn our attention to producing district heat, high-temperature industrial heat, and hydrogen and ammonia production. We could also decarbonize transport and agriculture. Decarbonizing electricity would only be the first part of a larger goal of completely decarbonizing the US.

Since the 1970s, America has seen rapid deindustrialization, offshoring, and an ever-strengthening sense of diminishing expectations. Plans that rely on renewables speak to a waning sense of confidence in the national ability to overcome problems. Whereas we once dreamed of a future of plenty for all, many wonder how much will be left to go around. 

But a carbon-free and abundant future is possible. We must commit ourselves to an American Prometheanism, a commitment to persevere and excel through even the toughest of problems by virtue of industry and pursuit of the public good. A Green Nuclear Deal would be the realization of this dream.