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Nuclear power is merely a distraction in addressing climate

Viewing some long promised, but not yet viable, nuclear technology as a panacea, gives people an excuse to avoid taking real action to address climate.

A bird flying over the Three Mile Island Nuclear power plant in Goldsboro, Pennsylvania.
A bird flying over the Three Mile Island Nuclear power plant in Goldsboro, Pennsylvania.
REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

There is no more important, nor more urgent, environmental issue facing humanity than the climate crisis. If we don’t address it with far more urgency than we have, nothing else will matter to our children’s children. Nothing.

Proponents of new nuclear power generation claim that advanced nuclear power can be part of the solution to addressing climate. However, nuclear proponents may once again be promising more than they can deliver.

Supposing there is a new nuclear technology that addresses the incredibly high costs of new nuclear generation, addresses the radioactive waste problem and that avoids risks from terrorism and potential meltdowns. Supposing there is a breakthrough, and that technology became available tomorrow morning, how quickly would they start generating power?

Given the history of nuclear plant construction, it’s hard to believe any reactor could be permitted, constructed, and in operation in less than 15 years. In climate mitigation, that’s too late.

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Decades ago, proponents claimed nuclear power would deliver electricity “too cheap to meter.” That never happened. Nuclear power has become more expensive and next generation nuclear plants have been consistently cancelled.  Over 40 planned reactors have been cancelled in the U.S. in the past 50 years, almost always because of cost, despite the federal government’s huge subsidy in underwriting insurance for catastrophic meltdowns in the Price-Anderson Act.

In 2017, South Carolina Gas & Electric’s residential customers were paying 18 percent of their electric bills to finance two new reactors, when the project was cancelled – after $9 billion had already been spent, due to delays and rising costs. Minnesota electric ratepayers were among the first in the country to end up paying for a never-finished nuclear plant – a long-forgotten project in Wisconsin that cost $103 million before it was abandoned in 1974.

New technologies might bring down the costs and speed up construction, but after decades of nuclear promises that didn’t pan out, the old adage, “I’ll believe it when I see it,” might be appropriate here. Nuclear power is getting more expensive, not less, over time.

Addressing the climate crisis requires enormous, extremely challenging, changes in our economy. We need to build out renewable energy sources that work – like wind and solar (which have become less expensive over time) – coupled with energy storage technologies. We need to electrify transportation, heating and cooling, and industrial sectors of the economy. Also, energy efficiency, including retrofitting residential housing and all buildings, and converting our agricultural system to store carbon in the soil instead of adding to greenhouse gas emissions. These are concrete steps we must make.

During the transition, prematurely shutting down existing nuclear plants instead of coal and other fossil fuel generation – something Germany did several years ago – is not a good trade-off. Continued operation of existing nuclear reactors is better for climate than coal or gas power plants.

Contrary to claims of nuclear moratorium opponents, the moratorium does not hinder discussion of new nuclear technologies. In Minnesota, the people who talk the most about nuclear power repeatedly claim that the moratorium prevents them “from even discussing it.” Their own words belie their claim.

Xcel Energy, the one Minnesota utility with experience operating nuclear reactors has expressed interest in continuing operation of its Monticello reactor but has not proposed any new ones. Xcel has plenty of political clout at the Capitol but has not made a significant attempt to repeal the moratorium. They are phasing out coal and gas plants but recognize that new reactors couldn’t be constructed fast enough to speed up the phase-out of fossil fuels.

State Sen. John Marty
State Sen. John Marty
Nuclear researchers, engineers, and businesses continue their work whether there is a moratorium or not. Small modular reactors? Advanced nuclear technologies? Perhaps they will come up with a less expensive, safe technology that doesn’t add to our waste problems and doesn’t require decades to construct. I would welcome such news. But don’t hold your breath waiting.

This year, in response to an attempt to repeal the moratorium, I offered an amendment to require any new nuclear plants be financed the way other power plants are – by the utilities, who are compensated by ratepayers when they are completed and generating electricity. My rate-payer protection amendment was defeated. Nuclear proponents don’t want to admit it, but nuclear reactors are so expensive and so prone to massive cost-overruns, that utility investors are not willing to take the risk.

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When investors are willing to bear the risk of nuclear power, perhaps we can believe their statements about how new reactors are part of the climate solution. Until then, we would be wise to use existing reactors until we are able to eliminate all fossil fuel plants and complete the transition to renewable power. Minnesota’s nuclear moratorium doesn’t interfere with any of that.

Viewing some long promised, but not yet viable, nuclear technology as a panacea, gives people an excuse to avoid taking real action to address climate. If 30 years from now they develop some new nuclear technology that makes sense, that’s great. But if we count on new reactors to help address climate – the earth is cooked by then.

Sen. John Marty (DFL-Roseville) is former chair of the Senate Energy and Environment Committee and an author of Minnesota’s nuclear moratorium.