Want to do something about climate change by reducing carbon emissions? If you’re serious, that “something” has to include a massive commitment to the construction of new nuclear power plants worldwide, as well as making sure that existing nuclear power plants don’t go offline until they can be replaced by new ones.
Nuclear power is the only major, established, proven source of power that has zero carbon emissions. Of the carbon-free alternatives, only hydroelectric has a long track record as a major power source, and you can only dam so many rivers; solar and wind are still in the teething stages and are unlikely to carry the load any time soon.
Nuclear power is reliable, safe and well understood. If you oppose nuclear power but call climate change a crisis, then you’re speaking nonsense, unless you simply want to reduce energy consumption in America to something like what’s seen in current day Venezuela, in which case you’re just speaking a different kind of nonsense.
A select few are being honest about what is required
Most, but not all, of the Democratic candidates for president are vague on the subject, silent or opposed to nuclear power. But not all. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey has been a "full-throated" supporter of nuclear power, and nuclear power gets a big boost from Andrew Yang’s climate change plan.
According to Yang’s plan, "Nuclear power is a crucial component in the move toward creating sustainable, carbon-free energy for the United States. However, many people — including some other candidates — dismiss it out of hand. Why does it have such a bad reputation? ... First, the public’s perception of its safety has been skewed by TV shows like 'Chernobyl' and 'The Simpsons.' "
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Yang continues: "When the (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Nuclear Energy Agency and National Aeronautics and Space Administration) analyzed the actual danger of nuclear energy compared with other sources, they found that it caused orders of magnitude fewer deaths than fossil fuel-based energy. And that’s not even considering the long-term impact of climate change from burning fossil fuels. With modern reactors, safety is drastically increased, and nuclear waste is drastically decreased."
That’s exactly right. Yang is particularly interested in reactors powered by thorium instead of uranium, because thorium is more efficient and more plentiful, and because thorium reactors can’t produce materials suitable for use in nuclear weapons. Plus: “Thorium reactors produce less waste than uranium reactors. Thorium waste remains radioactive for several hundred years instead of several thousand years. Thorium-based molten salt reactors are safer than earlier-generation nuclear reactors, and the potential for a catastrophic event is negligible, due to the design of the reactor and the fact that thorium is not, by itself, fissile.”
If this is a national emergency, nuclear can't be ignored
Yang is absolutely right to make these points, and he has gotten some well-deserved attention. But it’s surprising that he hasn’t gotten more, given how much we’re hearing about the crisis nature of climate change. Because if you take climate change seriously, you have to take nuclear power seriously. As Michael Shellenberger writes in Forbes, if Germany and California had based their emissions plans on nuclear instead of “renewables” like solar and wind, they’d have 100% clean power now.
But they didn’t, and they don’t, and the question is whether the rest of us will learn from their mistake. The International Energy Agency reports that planned nuclear retirements will already lead to 4 billion metric tons of extra carbon dioxide emissions. If it makes sense to keep functioning reactors online longer rather than replacing them with fossil fuels, then surely it makes sense to replace fossil fuel plants with new nuclear reactors.
There’s something of a renaissance going on in nuclear technology, with small "inherently safe" reactors being put forward to fill gaps in supply. These reactors could be mass-produced on assembly lines for much lower costs (current reactors are custom-built on site) and because of their small size could more easily be placed where needed.
Sure, people are scared and invoke things like Chernobyl or Three Mile Island, but when they do, they’re mostly thinking about the absurdly dramatized fictional versions of those incidents. (Shellenberger's column is headlined, "The reason they fictionalize nuclear disasters like Chernobyl is because they kill so few people"). Yang’s plan specifically recognizes this, noting that nuclear power causes orders of magnitudes fewer deaths than fossil fuels.
And the change could be done quickly. As Joshua Goldstein, Staffan Qvist and Steven Pinker note in The New York Times, France and Sweden “decarbonized their grids decades ago and now emit less than a 10th of the world average of carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour. They remain among the world’s most pleasant places to live and enjoy much cheaper electricity than Germany to boot. They did this with nuclear power. And they did it fast, taking advantage of nuclear power’s intense concentration of energy per pound of fuel. France replaced almost all of its fossil-fueled electricity with nuclear power nationwide in just 15 years; Sweden, in about 20 years. In fact, most of the fastest additions of clean electricity historically are countries rolling out nuclear power.”
Andrew Yang’s right. So why wait?
It's simple:Nuclear power is too costly and too risky
It’s time for our leaders to get their heads out of thriller movies and start supporting a massive shift to nuclear power. Because it’s a crisis, and in a crisis, you do things you haven’t done before.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor and the author of "The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself," is a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 2020 Democrats, Andrew Yang is right. To save the planet, go nuclear.