Most 2020 Democrats in the presidential primary have a plan to make the U.S. economy carbon-neutral, but very few of those plans include nuclear energy.
Nuclear energy is one of the few carbon-free energy options, but many Democrats have been reluctant to embrace the power source. Here are five things to know about the debate on nuclear power:
Nuclear energy is a stable power source with no carbon emissions.
As the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) — a nuclear power advocacy group — notes, nuclear energy is a stable power source strong enough to power entire countries.
Nuclear energy is produced in reactors that facilitate controlled nuclear reactions. Most reactors create energy through the complicated process of splitting atoms of uranium. After the atoms are split, they release energy in the form of heat. That heat is used to boil water, creating steam. The steam then pushes giant turbines which creates the electricity used to power entire cities.
Because the main exhaust from the process is just steam, nuclear energy is one of the few power generators that doesn’t produce CO2, the main driver of climate change. While the lack of carbon production is certainly a positive, that doesn’t mean the entire process is pollution-free. Nuclear energy production also creates the problem of nuclear waste when spent reaction rods must be disposed of, despite radioactivity that is deadly to humans.
There are currently 97 nuclear power generators scattered throughout the United States. In total, nuclear power makes up 20% of the total energy used in the U.S. France generates 74.8% of its power grid through nuclear energy.
While other carbon-free power generators, such as solar panels or wind turbines, struggle to hit peak efficiency on calm or cloudy days, nuclear power is able to generate all day, every day. The technology for nuclear power is already in use, while storage and battery creation remain an obstacle for many renewable forms of energy in use today.
All 2020 Democrats have plans to make the U.S. carbon neutral.
As IJR recently explained, all of the Democratic presidential candidates see climate change as a pending disaster and have released various plans to become carbon neutral. One of the most talked-about plans stems from Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez‘s (D-N.Y.) Green New Deal which aims to make the U.S. economy carbon-neutral by 2030.
Carbon-neutrality is a goal that a country puts out only as much carbon as it takes in, meaning carbon can still be produced but it must be taken out of the atmosphere. There are natural processes that take carbon out of the air, such as the respiration process for plants and trees. There is also a lot of research going into carbon-capture science, which would take carbon from the air and turn it into carbon-based products.
While many have embraced Ocasio-Cortez’s plan, some have offered more restrained visions of their climate goals. Former Vice President Joe Biden‘s plan, for example, aims to be carbon-neutral by 2050.
The pathways 2020 Democrats are using to reach zero emissions vary, but many of them agree on one thing: nuclear power is not the answer.
Most 2020 Democrats oppose expanding nuclear energy.
Despite the many positive impacts of nuclear energy, some Democrats are hesitant to embrace it because of the problem of nuclear waste.
Greenpeace, one of the foremost environmental activist groups in the U.S. which was founded in opposition to nuclear weapons and nuclear power, warns that there is “no place” for nuclear power in a “safe, clean, sustainable future.” They argue that reactor meltdowns in places like Chernobyl, Ukraine, and Fukushima, Japan, prove that nuclear energy is too dangerous.
Beyond meltdowns, nuclear power creates nuclear waste, which is radioactive and difficult to dispose of. Greenpeace notes that the U.S. nuclear waste depository in Yucca Mountain, Nevada, is unstable, writing:
“There is still no safe, reliable solution for dealing with the radioactive waste produced by nuclear plants. Every waste dump in the U.S. leaks radiation into the environment, and nuclear plants themselves are running out of ways to store highly radioactive waste on site. The site selected to store the U.S.’s radioactive waste — Yucca Mountain in Nevada — is both volcanically and seismically active.”
Many 2020 Democrats align with Greenpeace’s fears.
Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) all agree that nuclear power is too dangerous.
Watch Warren’s comments below:
— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) September 5, 2019
Booker claims nuclear energy has to be part of the plan.
While most candidates were steering clear of nuclear energy, Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.) came out the strongest in favor of nuclear energy. During CNN’s climate town hall, Booker explained that he believes nuclear power has to be part of the equation that results in an emissions-free economy.
The senator claimed that the science around nuclear energy is constantly improving, making it a safer option.
Watch Booker’s comments below:
— IJR (@TheIJR) September 5, 2019
“So this is where study and science is really important. So let’s deal with the facts and the data. When I was the mayor of the city of Newark, I used to have strong people with strong opinions, strong emotions. And I used to say, ‘In God we trust, but everybody else bring me data.’ And we need to look at the numbers right now. So my plan says we need to be at a zero-carbon electricity by 2030. That’s ten years from the time that I will win the presidency of the United States of America. And right now, nuclear is more than 50% of our non-carbon causing energy. So people who think that we can get there without nuclear being part of the blend, just aren’t looking at the facts.”
Biden has also made a mild case for nuclear, calling for more investment into research on the power source, but stopping short of calling for new facilities.
Republicans criticize Democrats over opposition to nuclear power.
While the debate on nuclear power rages in Democratic circles, many have questioned their opposition.
Several Republicans took to Twitter to criticize candidates that have aggressive zero-emissions goals that don’t include heavy investment in nuclear energy. Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) noted that a ban on nuclear energy could actually increase global emissions.
🚨Banning Nuclear Increases Carbon Emissions 🚨
The front runner with “the plan” has no idea how emissions actually work.
If you want proof that banning nuclear doesn’t work just look at Germany & Japan. Nuclear is banned and emissions went up.
Don’t put these people in power. https://t.co/di8DItic5C
— Dan Crenshaw (@DanCrenshawTX) September 5, 2019
Additionally, Washington Post Columnist Henry Olsen questioned why Democrats find nuclear waste more risky than climate change itself, given that nuclear energy is the only renewable energy source that has proven to be fully efficient. Olsen writes:
“[The risks of nuclear energy] pale, however, in comparison with the projected risks posed by climate change. […] Warren says climate change is an ‘existential challenge,’ and Sanders says ‘we have less than 11 years left to transform our energy system away from fossil fuels … if we are going to leave our planet healthy and habitable.’ Given this rhetoric, aren’t the risks from nuclear power well worth taking?”
Nuclear power is certainly a dividing issue between climate activists and 2020 candidates but given the accelerated goals of the zero-emissions movement, it is a debate that will likely be at the forefront of future discussions on the battle against climate change.