Does talking about how nuclear power can solve climate change actually help nuclear power solve climate change?
It’s an odd question, I know, but it’s one I find myself asking every time I see an op-ed arguing that nuclear power could address the climate crisis. Sometimes, the argument comes from industry groups like the Nuclear Energy Institute. Other times it comes from heterodox academics like Stephen Pinker. More recently, four very prominent and well-respected climate researchers argued for turning toward nukes in the Guardian.
The latter piece has engendered a lot of responsive commentary. Joe Romm is typically direct, quantitative and clear in his response. Peter Bradford, a former Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner, is acerbic and pragmatic with his.
Romm and Bradford’s substantive points aside, opinion editors are drawn toward the idea that nuclear power could be a climate fix. It taps into a natural journalistic bias toward allies criticizing one another publicly. Greens, of course, broadly oppose nuclear power. Therefore, if nuclear really did solve the greatest of green challenges—climate change—that’d just be too good an argument to pass up for the op-ed page.
But having worked in climate communication for about a decade, I tend to shrug these op-eds off, largely for reasons Romm and others have outlined.
After a decade of reading pieces like this, one thing is clear: op-eds about nuclear power don’t make nuclear power any cheaper.
If nuclear power were cheaper—if it could compete, subsidized or not, more readily with natural gas, wind or solar, we’d be having a very different conversation about it. How quickly could new reactors really be built? Would safety concerns be worth it? Could we build them away from major population centers?
Rod Adams at Atomic Insight argues that the buildup could happen more quickly than we think. But even that level of analysis is largely absent from op-eds about nuclear power, which usually skip over the economics and make unstated assumptions about how a reorientation of climate advocacy toward nuclear power could change the results of financial spreadsheets at utilities and on Wall Street.
Climate analysts, of course, should be open to arguments about how the underlying costs of nuclear power—which include the costs of avoiding accidents and processing waste—might change over time, through some mix of technology, policy and economics. But the argument would have to be specific and compelling. And it would have to weigh nuclear power against the alternatives. And it would have to be a lot more exciting than a shallow conversation about what sort of nuclear “position” people who care about climate change or energy independence should adopt.
Policy and advocacy can do a lot to change our energy landscape, but controlled fission reactions remain a remarkably expensive way to create electricity that comes with it’s own set of risks and, yes, public fears.
Op-eds that assume nuclear has to be put back on the table—or that greens are hopelessly biased against uranium-based electricity production—are wrong in a serious regard, too: for policymakers and climate analysts, nuclear has remained on the table—it just looks a lot less appealing than wind and solar.