correction: A previous version of this column incorrectly said that Joe Biden was the only candidate at CNN's climate town hall to mention nuclear energy in his plan as a tool to address climate change. Andrew Yang and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) also include nuclear energy in their plans. This version has been updated.
Ten Democratic presidential hopefuls gather on Wednesday for a “climate town hall” in which they will lay out their plans to combat climate change. There are two words few of the them — if any — are likely to mention: nuclear power. Voters who take climate change seriously should demand better.
Climate change activists tell us that the planet’s future is at stake if we don’t act now. The Green New Deal resolution says the United States needs to engage in climate mobilization on a scale not seen since World War II. One might think such activists would be clamoring for the rapid deployment of the one existing, proven technology that is totally free of greenhouse gas emissions: nuclear power. Yet they are not.
Nuclear power expansion is notably absent from three of the four leading Democratic candidates’ climate action plans. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) do not mention nuclear power in their plans at all. Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.)’s plan does mention nuclear power: It says he will stop construction on all new nuclear plants and place a moratorium on renewing licenses for existing ones. The three most extensive and expensive climate change plans among the leading contenders thus rule out using the cheapest and quickest method to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Among the top candidates at the town hall, only front-runner Joe Biden cautiously mentions his plan to use nuclear power to combat climate change. Saying that “we must look at all low- and zero-carbon technologies,” Biden’s plan pledges to research new technologies that could reduce construction costs for nuclear power plants and research issues related to cost, safety and waste disposal for existing nuclear technologies. His plan says nothing about encouraging immediate new construction of nuclear plants.
Nuclear power is certainly not risk-free. While anti-nuclear activists often exaggerate the extent of the risks, there are small chances that nuclear plants can release radioactive gas into the air. Nuclear waste disposal also poses health and safety threats, as the half-life of spent nuclear fuel can last decades or even millennia. These are not trivial risks.
They pale, however, in comparison with the projected risks posed by climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report last fall saying climate change will be irreversible unless immediate action is taken to reduce carbon emissions by 2030. Candidates have taken this to heart: Warren says climate change is an “existential challenge,” and Sanders says “we have less than 11 years left to transform our energy system away from fossil fuels ... if we are going to leave our planet healthy and habitable.” Given this rhetoric, aren’t the risks from nuclear power well worth taking?
A nuclear-fueled electrical grid could be the backbone of rapid decarbonization. Warren’s plan says electricity generation alone accounts for about a third of all greenhouse gas emissions. Coupled with subsidization of electric car purchases and investment in making residential heating, cooling and cooking 100 percent electric-powered, a nuclear future would dramatically reduce nearly 70 percent of existing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Doing this would be expensive, but it would be much cheaper than the Democratic approaches. More importantly, it could definitely be done, unlike alternatives that rely on solar or wind power to generate electricity.
Solar and wind power can never form the backbone of electricity generation because they cannot operate continuously. Electric current needs to be constantly flowing to be available on demand, but solar and wind power generate electricity only when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. They can become viable sources for the bulk of our electricity only if advances are made in batteries that can store solar and wind power and if homes and buildings are then decoupled from the grid and made to rely on these batteries for their electricity needs. Cost-effective versions of that technology are a long way off and will not likely be available by 2030.
Abandoning the one available means we have to quickly reduce carbon emissions should be a warning sign to voters. If candidates don’t recognize this, we should assume they’re not serious about fighting climate change — or that the real objective of their plans isn’t fighting climate change at all.