Friday, August 27, 2021

Are the Climate Hawks About to Say "Uncle" on Nuclear? Maybe.

In perhaps a sign of the times, there is a very open-minded op-ed in the Times today on nuclear. Spencer Bokat-Lindell, who is a staff editor, points out the following:
"Humanity’s failure to avert the crisis of a warming climate is sometimes framed as a grand technological problem: For centuries, countries relied on fossil fuels to industrialize their economies and generate wealth, and it was only in recent years that alternative ways of powering a society, like solar and wind energy, became viable.
But when it comes to electricity, at least, that story isn’t true. Today, the United States gets 60 percent of its electricity from fossil fuels and just 20 percent from renewables. The final 20 percent comes from nuclear power, a technology that has existed since the 1950s, produces no carbon dioxide and has killed far fewer people than fossil fuels.
Decarbonizing the electric grid is certainly not the only challenge climate change poses, but it is the central one. And the Biden administration has said the United States needs to meet it by 2035. Should nuclear power be playing a bigger role in the transition? Here’s what people are saying.
Its proponents often point out that nuclear power is responsible for the fastest decarbonization effort in history. In the 1970s, France embarked on a sweeping, centrally planned expansion of its nuclear power industry to break its dependence on foreign oil. Over the next decade, it managed to expand its economy even as it cut its emissions at a rate that no other country has achieved since. Today, France derives 70 percent of its electricity from nuclear power....
As Leah Stokes, a climate policy expert at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told my colleague Ezra Klein in February, in countries where nuclear power has been phased out — such as Japan, Belgium and Germany — fossil fuels tend to pick up the slack. “That is a terrible, terrible outcome,” Stokes said.
Why shouldn’t the United States follow suit? “A rapid increase in nuclear energy would slash emissions from the power sector, as the French example makes clear,” The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer wrote in 2019. “Even today, France’s carbon density — its carbon emissions per capita — ranks well below that of Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States.”
Theoretically, the United States could try to phase out nuclear power and fossil fuels at once, as Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren proposed during their presidential campaigns. But doing so before 2035 would make a monumental challenge even harder: According to one estimate, decarbonizing America’s electric grid would cost about half a trillion dollars more if nuclear power is abandoned.
Such complications explain why many climate experts decline to take a hard stance on nuclear power. “It’s absurd to be ‘pronuclear’ or ‘antinuclear’ on an ideological/identity basis,” David Roberts, an energy and climate journalist, said last year. “The world should build whatever carbon-free options are fastest and (with all costs considered) cheapest. Nuclear doesn’t currently fit that bill, but new reactor designs might change that. If so, build them; if not, don’t.”
Pretty straightforward right? And yet, the inverse correlation remains strong among climate activists--the more intense and apocalyptic the worries about climate change, the stronger the opposition to nuclear power. This makes no sense and as Matt Yglesias points our represents a fundamentally unserious approach to actually mitigating climate change:
"That the mass public does not adequately prioritize climate change is unfortunate.
But it’s perhaps understandable in light of the fact that environmental organizations themselves don’t consistently prioritize it. The Natural Resources Defense Council cheered April’s shutdown of the Indian Point nuclear plant in New York, arguing that “because of New York’s landmark 2019 climate legislation and years of clean energy planning and investments by the state, New York is better positioned today than ever to achieve its ambitious climate and clean energy goals without this risky plant.”
This is just an insane analysis. There is no universe in which we are going to have so much zero-carbon electricity that we won’t regret having lost existing sources of zero-carbon electricity. After all, to meet our climate aspirations we not only need to replace 100% of existing fossil fuel electricity, but we also need to convert the entire fleet of vehicles for transporting people and cargo to electricity. That’s a lot of electricity!"
Being anti-nuclear is a luxury we can't afford if we're serious about the climate change problem. Perhaps climate hawks are in the process of realizing this. Perhaps not. We'll see.

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