Fourth-generation nuclear energy must be taken seriously in fight against climate change

The Hanford Story

This 2011 multimedia presentation provides an overview of the Hanford Site—its history, cleanup activities, and a glimpse into the possibilities of future uses of the 586-square-mile government site in southeast Washington State.
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This 2011 multimedia presentation provides an overview of the Hanford Site—its history, cleanup activities, and a glimpse into the possibilities of future uses of the 586-square-mile government site in southeast Washington State.

Democratic candidates for president are tripping over themselves to outdo each other on solutions to climate change. Most have signed on to the Green New Deal offered originally by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y, and Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass. It calls for the elimination of all U.S. carbon emissions and guaranteeing every American a government job. Most Democratic candidates support it for fear of losing the support of the party’s increasingly liberal base.

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper found how uncompromising that base can be when he questioned why the Green New Deal conflated job creation with a goal as important as climate change. He was met with jeers at the California Democratic Convention for daring to question the gospel according to Ocasio-Cortez and Markey.

The Green New Deal has all the wolf whistles to attract the liberal faithful who like to hear Elizabeth Warren rail against the big fossil-fuel lobbies and who applaud Bernie Sanders’ call for a ban on fracking. What is not clear either in the document itself or in any of the public positions taken by the candidates is whether any of them truly understand what an impossible task it is to decarbonize the world without nuclear energy as a significant part of the solution.

One of the Democratic candidates, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, has made climate change the cornerstone of his campaign, and he seems to be getting all the traction that bald tires get in a snowstorm. And even he equivocates on nuclear energy, apparently living in fear of the liberal reaction against anything nuclear.

What Inslee and others on the Democratic circuit must read before they make any more assertions about how we can reverse climate change by renewables alone is “A Bright Future: How Some Countries Have Solved Climate Change and the Rest Can Follow.” Joshua S. Goldstein and Staffan A. Qvist make a compelling case for nuclear power as the only energy option with enough capacity to ward off a climate crisis that threatens civilization as we know it

One of the reasons the Democratic Party runs the other way when it hears the word “nuclear” is its history of running in lockstep with the environmental movement. That’s a good thing usually, but in this case it’s unfortunate that the environmental movement has not kept an open mind on nuclear power over recent years. Of course, the main concerns have always been the few accidents over time and the nuclear waste issue. The authors of “A Bright Future” update some old thinking on those issues with the latest research on fourth-generation nuclear power as it is being developed across the globe. Sweden, France and Ontario have successfully replaced fossil fuels with a build-out of nuclear power that is safe and clean.

Bill Gates signed on to the cause when he co-founded Terrapower, which has a reactor that breeds plutonium as fuel, contained within the reactor, thus eliminating the need to export waste off-site. Russia is also developing reactors with closed fuel cycles, and China and India are following suit. With California and Massachusetts closing all their nuclear plants, it may appear as though nuclear energy will not be a part of the climate change solution. Yet Goldstein and Qvist remind us that there are 449 reactors in 31 countries in operation.

Goldstein and Qvist are not the first to point to the inadequacy of other energy sources when compared to nuclear. It’s called the capacity factor, and it simply measures the percentage of time a power-generating unit actually produces energy. Wind isn’t always there for the turbine, sun isn’t always there for the solar panels and water is not always consistent for dam turbines. According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), in 2009 the capacity factors were 90.3% for nuclear, 63.8% for coal, 42.5% for natural gas plants, 39.8% for hydroelectric, 33.9% for renewables such as wind and solar, and 7.8% for oil.

According to the authors of “A Bright Future,” there must be a rapid decarbonization of electricity generation, which is heavily dependent on fossil fuels, and no matter how attractive “renewable” energy looks, it alone cannot get us there fast enough. Even hydropower, which currently provides two-thirds of renewable energy worldwide, cannot scale up quickly enough to meet what must be a goal of reducing our global carbon emissions by 2-3 percent a year.

James Hansen, one of the first scientists to issue warnings about global warming, has endorsed “A Bright Future” and its call for a more robust role for fourth-generation nuclear power in the fight against climate change. If it is required reading for anyone, it must be for the environmental lobby and Democrats who have paid homage to the renewable gods and turned their backs on a new and safe fourth generation of nuclear energy that must join the arsenal of options available to get the planet decarbonized by the end of the century.

Bob Kustra served as president of Boise State University from 2003 to 2018. He is host of Readers Corner on Boise State Public Radio and is a member of the Statesman editorial board.