In the lead-up to the 2016 election, the most formidable candidates vying to serve as our next president have largely avoided the topic of nuclear power. Indeed, they have encountered little pressure to address it even as the Paris climate talks open, with none of the Republican or Democratic debates so far including a single, specific question on nuclear energy.
Republicans for the most part have never wavered in their support of nuclear power. The sea change is on the left, where a new consciousness has arisen among a number of influential environmental activists. These activists argue that nuclear power must play a significant part in the energy mix if we are to have any chance of stemming the consequences of global warming.
The most influential climate scientist urging the acceptance of nuclear power is James Hansen of Columbia University’s Earth Institute. Hansen is not alone. Other prominent advocates have included renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs; former Greenpeace leader Patrick Moore; Whole Earth Catalog editor Stewart Brand; and billionaire Bill Gates. A 2013 Sundance documentary, Pandora’s Promise, tracks the conversion of featured activists from anti- to pro-nuclear positions, resigned to believe that nuclear power provides the only realistic approach to curbing climate change.
The most critical question, in determining whether to promote nuclear energy, is whether there is a viable alternative. Increasing nuclear capacity is not necessary if a transition to renewables can be achieved before emissions cause a catastrophic rise in global temperatures. For Hansen, the answer is obvious. The idea that clean energy can scale up fast enough to replace fossil fuels is so naïve, he says, that we might as well believe in the Easter bunny and the tooth fairy.
But in reality, the question of how fast renewables can scale up is far from settled. An analysis by Greenpeace outlines a pathway to 100 percent global renewable energy by 2050, and engineers from Stanford University and colleagues similarly outlined a state-by-state roadmap to reach 100 percent renewables by the same year. Recent progress yields encouraging signs. Between 2007 and 2014, wind, solar, biomass, and other non-hydroelectric renewables together nearly tripled their contributions to the U.S. electricity supply. Including hydroelectric, renewables accounted for 13 percent of energy consumed in the electric power sector in 2014. By the end of 2014, renewables comprised roughly 27 percent of the world’s generating capacity.
Renewable energy provides the exclusive power source for three U.S. cities: Burlington, Vermont; Greensburg, Kansas; and Aspen, Colorado. States like Maine, California, Vermont, and Hawaii, have led with strong regulatory targets known as renewable portfolio standards (RPSs); New York adopted an ambitious RPS as well. The business sector likewise is prioritizing energy transition, with many corporations committed to 100 percent renewable power within the coming decades. Roughly 40 companies have joined the global RE100 initiative, including powerhouses like Nike, Walmart, Goldman Sachs, Johnson & Johnson, and Procter & Gamble.
Moreover, these strides are occurring in spite of entrenched support for non-renewable energy sources. In 2013, fossil fuels received roughly $550 billion in global subsidies, artificially lowering consumption prices and making it harder for clean energy to compete. According to the International Energy Agency, renewable subsidies stood at less than one quarter that amount for the same year. Nuclear power likewise receives substantial public subsidies, as the Union of Concerned Scientists reported in 2011. And the Price Anderson Act, originally passed in 1957, requires the U.S. government (i.e., taxpayers) to partially indemnify nuclear providers for damages from nuclear accidents.
Despite its legitimate urgency, global warming should not trigger a race to build more nuclear power plants. Rather, an upsurge in political momentum is needed to support the rapid rise of renewable energy. Democratic and Republican presidential contenders have failed to clarify their own ideas about the future of nuclear power within our energy mix, and the time is ripe for a meaningful public conversation. Regardless of affiliations and preconceptions, the question of whether to rely on nuclear power in a warming world is too important to ignore.