Sep 03 2019

The Politics of Nuclear Power

Our president is a global warming denier, is anti-vaccine, and is a conspiracy theorist. Regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, being anti-science is never a good thing. When those in positions of power are ignorant of science and hostile to the institutions of science and the methods that those institutions espouse, that is a recipe for disaster.

But even a stopped clock is correct twice a day. And even though there appears to be a significant asymmetry in the degree to which our two major political parties take anti-scientific positions, on some issues the political left has it wrong for their own ideological reasons. The two big anti-science issues popular on the left are anti-GMO stances and anti-nuclear energy. The latter was recently brought into sharp relief when Trump signed a, “Memorandum on the Effect of Uranium Imports on the National Security and Establishment of the United States Nuclear Fuel Working Group.” 

I doubt that Trump, who has demonstrated profound anti-intellectualism and even an unwillingness to read, has a deep knowledge of the scientific issues surrounding nuclear power, but he is a conduit for those who do, unfettered by political opposition (which remains on the left). Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders, in his version of the green new deal, states, “To get to our goal of 100 percent sustainable energy, we will not rely on any false solutions like nuclear, geoengineering, carbon capture and sequestration, or trash incinerators.” He plans to completely and quickly phase out all nuclear power in the US.

I have to point out for completeness that more moderate Democratic candidates, like Joe Biden, do include nuclear power in their energy infrastructure plans to combat global warming.

Also, attitudes toward nuclear power have been moving toward more favorable in recent years. This seems to be due to a few factors. The more people know about nuclear power, the more favorable they are towards it. Fears about global warming have caused some to moderate their views on nuclear energy. And newer reactors designs are moving toward smaller and safer designs.

There is still an asymmetry politically, however. Only 31% of Democrats say that nuclear power is essential or helpful, while 34% say it would be harmful. For Republicans the numbers are 50% and 17% respectively.

Getting back to Trump’s memorandum, this focuses on nuclear fuel, not nuclear reactors. One main effect is to establish a working group to review the entire nuclear fuel cycle, including mining, importing, processing, and enrichment. This is partly framed as an issue of national security, which is legitimate whenever talking about radioactive material and possible material for nuclear weapons.  We also don’t want to be reliant on hostile foreign powers for material essential to our military.

Even when just considering nuclear energy, we need to secure a sufficient supply of fuel for a century of nuclear power at least, and it would be nice if that supply was cost-effective. This is not just for the US, but for the world. As a side note, none of the articles I read about this memorandum mention thorium, which is an alternate nuclear fuel source. This is a deep topic unto itself, but I will just mention a few things. There is already a thorium reactor in India, but none in the US. Thorium has several advantages, including that it is safer, and the US has massive thorium reserves. You also cannot make the fuel into weapon’s grade material, which is both a feature and a bug depending on your perspective. But for civilian nuclear power, this is a definite positive and makes security easier.

The more short term problem with nuclear power is that our existing plants are due to retire, without plans for replacement. If we want to deeply decarbonize the energy infrastructure, we will need to extend the lifespan of these plants, and accelerate the building of new generation nuclear power. In the news discussions of this issue, however, and the comments beneath them, we unfortunately see all the tropes and misinformation about nuclear power. You can see them all just in the comments to this Washington Post article. Clearly we need a more robust national conversation on this issue, so that at least we have a common set of facts (yeah, I know) to work with. This is why I think a science-focused debate or series of debates would be great – allowing a real deep dive, with informed moderators who can ask insightful questions.

I have already addressed many of these tropes, but here is a quick summary of the facts.

Nuclear power is the safest form of energy we have, if you consider deaths per megawatt of energy produced.

Nuclear waste can be dealt with, and the newer reactors produce less waste, and can even theoretically burn reprocessed waste from older plants.

Nuclear power can be cost effective. First, we need to eliminate subsidies for fossil fuel. Second, we need to consider the economics of full decarbonization. Many comments tout wind and solar as being more cost effective – but that is only for now, while their penetration is low. You cannot extrapolate this to 100% renewable. When you start to get north of 30-40% penetration you need significant grid updates (including grid storage) and overproduction, so the cost effectiveness starts to go way down. So – if you consider the total cost to get to 100% low carbon energy (not just consider the current cost of wind and solar at low penetration) keeping and adding nuclear is the most cost effective option.

This is also the option most likely to succeed. We do have examples from other countries. Germany tried to go completely renewable and closed their nuclear plants, and now have to build coal-fired plants to meet their energy needs. Meanwhile the countries that are doing the best with low carbon energy are France and Sweden, who invested heavily in nuclear. This is why Bernie’s plan would be a disaster, it would exactly follow the failed strategy of Germany, but on a larger scale.

It is unfortunate that this is a political issue at all. The science is pretty clear (both on global warming and nuclear power). Our goals should be clear as well – decarbonize our energy infrastructure as quickly as possible, and model this for the rest of the world. We can debate about how best to do this exactly, but for now it seems pretty clear that there is no one single solution, and we should be exploring and investing in all options to have the highest chance that some of them will work out. We don’t have time to put all our eggs in one basket, because we won’t have time to adjust if it doesn’t work.

The far right and the far left both have their problems on this issue, and we need to come together in the middle and just follow the evidence on this one.

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