Energy & Environment

Democrats’ Curious Disdain for Nuclear Power

A bird flies over the Three Mile Island Nuclear power plant in Goldsboro, Pa., May 30, 2017. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)
Until they embrace nuclear energy as a key to reducing emissions, the party’s many presidential candidates will be hard to take seriously on climate change.

Climate change is the No. 1 issue for Democrats, with a recent poll showing 82 percent of Democratic voters listed it as their top priority. To appeal to those voters, contenders for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination routinely call climate change an “existential threat” to the nation and the world. But amid all their rhetoric and promises of massively expensive plans to tackle the problem, these same Democrats — with the notable exception of Senator Cory Booker — steadfastly refuse to utter two critical words: nuclear power.

The Democrats’ disdain for nuclear energy deserves attention, because there is no credible pathway toward large-scale decarbonization that doesn’t include lots of it. That fact was reinforced Tuesday, when the International Energy Agency published a report declaring that without more nuclear energy, global carbon dioxide emissions will surge and “efforts to transition to a cleaner energy system will become drastically harder and more costly.”

How costly? The IEA estimates that “$1.6 trillion in additional investment would be required in the electricity sector in advanced economies from 2018 to 2040” if the use of nuclear energy continued to decline. That, in turn, would mean higher prices, as “electricity supply costs would be close to $80 billion higher per year on average for advanced economies as a whole.”

The report makes it clear that solar and wind energy cannot fill the gap left by the decline of the nuclear sector. Among the reasons cited by the Paris-based agency is land-use conflicts, a problem that is evident in Europe and across the U.S. The IEA says that “resistance to siting wind and, to a lesser extent, solar farms is a major obstacle to scaling up renewables capacity.” To take one example, last month, in Illinois, the Dewitt County Board voted against a wind project that would have covered more than 12,000 acres of land with 67 wind turbines standing nearly 600 feet high. To take another, earlier this month, in Indiana, the Tippecanoe County Commission passed a zoning ordinance that prohibits the installation of industrial-scale wind turbines.

By my count, since 2015, about 230 government entities from Maine to California have moved to reject or restrict wind projects. And an increasing number of rural communities are fighting large solar projects, too. On May 9, the town board of Cambria, N.Y. (population: 6,000), unanimously rejected a proposed 100-megawatt solar project. If built, the $210 million project would have covered about 900 acres with solar panels. Cambria town supervisor Wright Ellis, who has held that position for 27 years, told me, “We don’t want it. We are opposed to it.” Among the reasons Ellis gave me was that the project would result in a “permanent loss of agricultural land” and potentially reduce the value of some 350 nearby homes.

At the same time that an increasing number of rural communities are fighting the encroachment of large-scale renewable projects, the U.S. is facing a wave of nuclear-reactor retirements. Nine reactors in the U.S. are slated to be retired over the next three years, and the IEA estimates that domestic nuclear capacity could shrink by more than half in the next 20 years. The agency points to the many challenges facing the nuclear sector, including increased regulations, low-cost natural gas, and competition from subsidized renewables.

The timing of the IEA report is particularly relevant for New York City, which gets about 25 percent of its electricity from the two reactors at the Indian Point Energy Center in Buchanan, N.Y. Next April, Indian Point’s Unit 2 reactor will be permanently shuttered. In April 2021, its remaining reactor, Unit 3, will likewise be retired. When those reactors close, their output will largely be replaced by three gas-fired power plants, which is no surprise: Whenever nuclear reactors are shuttered, they get replaced by plants that burn natural gas, and that means increased emissions of carbon dioxide.

In 2013, when Michael Bloomberg was mayor, his office issued a report that estimated closing Indian Point and replacing it with gas-fired generation would “increase New York City’s greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 15 percent.” It also said the city “depends on Indian Point for reliability as congested transmission lines limit power imports from more distant locations.” But current mayor — and Democratic presidential hopeful — Bill de Blasio steadfastly refuses to acknowledge Indian Point’s importance, or the potential of nuclear power in general. Last month, de Blasio unveiled his $14 billion NYC Green New Deal plan, which aims to cut New York City’s emissions by 30 percent by 2030. With the looming loss of Indian Point, that 30 percent goal will effectively become 45 percent.

Another Democratic contender, Beto O’Rourke, has dubbed climate change “our greatest threat” and says he will “mobilize $5 trillion” to cut domestic greenhouse-gas emissions to zero by 2050. The word “nuclear” does not appear anywhere on his website, just as it’s absent from nearly every other Democratic presidential candidate’s site. That’s a shame, because the IEA’s report is just the latest in a long line of scientific papers pointing to the need for nuclear energy. In 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declared that achieving deep cuts in emissions will “require more intensive use” of low-emission technologies “such as renewable energy [and] nuclear energy.”

This is, frankly, one of the biggest and longest-running disconnects in American politics: The leaders of the Democratic party insist that the U.S. must make big cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions because of the threat posed by climate change, but for nearly five decades, they have either ignored or professed outright opposition to nuclear energy. The last time the party’s platform contained a positive statement about nuclear power was way back in 1972.

America’s top Democrats repeatedly tout the need for “clean” energy and massive deployments of wind and solar power, but by denying the role that nuclear energy must play in any successful decarbonization efforts, they are ignoring the scientific consensus. If they truly care about the dangers posed by climate change, they should stand up and tell the truth about the need for nuclear energy. Until that happens, their various plans to address the issue will be impossible to take seriously.

Robert Bryce is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the producer of the forthcoming documentary Juice: How Electricity Explains the World.

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