Nuclear: The Future of Clean Energy

By: Rachel Kamis

In his State of the Union address, Biden said “Let’s face reality. The climate crisis doesn’t care if you’re in a red or blue state. It’s an existential threat. We have an obligation, not to ourselves, but to our children and our grandchildren to confront it.” With climate change at the front of the president’s agenda, the Biden administration set a goal to reach net-zero federal emissions by 2050. According to The Long-Term Strategy of the United States, Pathways to Net-Zero Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 2050 Report, the U.S. will reach its zero-emissions goals through scaling up renewables to 6 times its current amount. The current U.S. federal government wants to reduce carbon emissions by increasing solar and wind, but I think it is the wrong approach. Though the thought of scaling up nuclear power might be scary to some, it is the future of clean energy. 

After years of investing in renewables such as wind and solar, it’s nuclear’s time to shine! Wind and solar energy are notoriously unreliable; they are dependent on the weather and prone to causing electricity shortages and grid blackouts. On the other hand, nuclear is reliable and is as efficient as wind and solar. Carbon emissions between nuclear and renewables are comparable; nuclear produces “the same amount of CO2-equivalent emissions per unit of electricity as wind, and about one-third that of solar.” Additionally, nuclear can operate almost continuously creating a continuous supply of energy. This is important for grid functionality because it will prevent blackouts and shortages. 

It is also scalable. Because nuclear power has a greater capacity factor than other sources, it would take “almost two coal or three to four renewable plants (each of 1 GW size) to generate the same amount of electricity onto the grid.” This means that more energy can be generated with fewer nuclear plants, so scaling nuclear would be more energy efficient than scaling renewables. 

When you think about nuclear plants, you might think of Fukushima Daiichi, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island. Naturally, there is public concern regarding the safety of nuclear plants. However, this level of fear is largely unfounded. Radiation from accidents like Fukushima and Chernobyl did not have discernable impacts on public health (at least for those outside the facilities). Nuclear energy is incredibly safe, and it has gotten much safer since Fukushima. 

That doesn’t mean that nuclear is without its issues. It requires a lot of monetary investment to build nuclear plants. The cost of generating electricity through nuclear is about 3x higher than solar. However, some argue that those cost measurements are not fully accurate. It also takes about 10 years to construct a plant, but it is possible to construct plants within 3-4 years.

Additionally, the question of nuclear waste remains unanswered. Scientists are not fully confident about how to handle nuclear waste. The current approach is to store high-level waste for at least 50 years (through a combination of water and dry storage). Then, the waste will be disposed of underground.

Though nuclear is a time-consuming investment, it is a worthwhile one. With its reliability, efficiency, and capacity, it is the best option currently available to meet clean energy goals. So, how can we strengthen nuclear in America? I recommend a two-pronged approach: 1. Increase federal funding and incentives for nuclear energy. 2. Change the national narrative to nuclear. 

Currently, the federal government’s role in nuclear energy production is focused on regulations and research and development. The funding opportunities currently listed on the DOE’s website are for R&D, education, and community engagement. However, in the past, there have been more direct federal investments in nuclear power. In 2005, the Energy Policy Act was enacted, providing tax credits for new nuclear projects and supplying federal risk insurance of $2 billion. Additionally, in 2008, the DOE accepted applications for loan guarantees to fund the construction of advanced nuclear power plants. However, by 2010, they were no longer able to attain funds from Congress, forcing the suspension/delays of several projects, including a Duke Energy Plant. In more recent years. Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA),  but the IRA lacks nuclear specific policy. Because the IRA doesn’t specifically address nuclear, energy developers may choose to invest in renewables over nuclear. 

Congress and the federal government should reinvest in nuclear through reintroducing tax credits and reimplementing funding targeted at new nuclear power plant construction. One idea is to create a “loan guarantee program should be a permanent financing platform endowed with substantial permanent loan authority.” This would generate revenue for the government and grow the nuclear industry. 

In addition to increasing funds, politicians must shift the national narrative surrounding nuclear. Biden needs to promote nuclear as an energy option. Biden should back up previously vocal voices about nuclear energy such as Jennifer Granholm, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy. Politicians across both sides of the aisle, such as Republican James Risch and Democrat Diane Feinstein are vocal about the strengths of nuclear. Endorsing nuclear has the potential for bipartisan success.

Just in the past few years, there have been several nuclear power wins. In February 2024, the House passed the Atomic Energy Advancement Act.  Journalists recently stated that a nuclear energy package (likely attached to another bill) will pass through both chambers soon. This package aims to streamline new reactor applications. Furthermore, the first new nuclear reactor built in the U.S. since 2016, Vogtle 3, is in operation as of 2023. With nuclear policy gaining momentum in politics and business, the future of nuclear looks bright!

One thought on “Nuclear: The Future of Clean Energy

  1. Rachel, your blog post really got me thinking about the role of nuclear power in our clean energy future. I have to admit, I’ve been a bit skeptical about nuclear in the past, but you make some compelling arguments. The reliability and efficiency of nucler compared to renewables like wind and solar is eye-opening.And while the upfront costs and construction time for nuclear plants are significant and need to be addressed, I agree that it’s a worthwhile long-term investment if it can help us meet our ambitious net-zero emissions goals. Your point about changing the national narrative around nuclear also resonated with me. I think a lot of people, myself included, have had a knee-jerk negative reaction to nuclear power because of high-profile accidents like Fukushima and Chernobyl. But as you noted, the safety record of nuclear is actually quite strong, especially with modern plants and oversight. Imagine if we could harness the incredible energy density of nuclear in a way that doesn’t contribute to climate change – that would be a game changer! Of coarse there are challenges that remain, particularly around waste storage and disposal. But I’m hopeful that continued research and inovation will help us address those issues. In the meantime, I agree that increasing federal support and incentives for nuclear is crucial. We need an all-hands-on-deck approach to tackling climate change, and nuclear deserves to be a big part of that mix. Thanks for challenging my assumptions and giving me a new perspective to consider! I’m excited to see where the future of clean nuclear energy will take us.

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