Experts at odds over nuclear power's role in fighting climate change

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·8 min read

One key provision in the Senate's draft Inflation Reduction Act — the first-of-its-kind climate bill in the U.S. that aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change — is an improved tax credit for American nuclear power plants and funding for next-generation nuclear fuels.

The role nuclear power can or should play in helping the world reduce these emissions is hotly debated, however. Many climate hawks see nuclear, which generates about 19% of electricity in the U.S., as a necessary bridge to helping the global economy transition to renewable sources of energy. John Kerry, President Biden’s special envoy for climate, has indicated that the construction of new nuclear plants needs to be a global priority.

"Secretary Kerry has repeatedly spoken about the role that existing and new nuclear can play in tackling the climate crisis," a State Department official told Yahoo News. "The United States stands ready to provide support and partnership to those countries around the world that have prioritized nuclear in their clean energy and climate plans to address the global climate crisis and bolster energy security."

Microsoft founder Bill Gates also supports expanding nuclear power.

"It’s hard to imagine a future where we can decarbonize our power grid affordably without using more nuclear power," Gates, who has started a company to build small modular nuclear reactors, told the Nuclear Energy Assembly last summer.

The cooling towers of a nuclear power plant.
The cooling towers of a nuclear power plant in Winfield, W.Va. (Getty Images)

In much of Europe, however, nuclear power is seen as "an old way of thinking about energy systems," Raphael Hanoteaux, a senior policy adviser at the climate change think tank E3G, told Yahoo News. Embarking on more nuclear plants requires huge startup costs and a conservative time frame of a decade or more between ground breaking and electricity delivery, he added.

"It doesn't make sense to invest in new nuclear power plants," he said. "They cost a lot of money compared to the current price of renewables, energy efficiency investments or batteries."

Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm told Yahoo News at last year’s United Nations climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, that the Biden administration was "very bullish" on helping build the next generation of nuclear reactors. The U.S. Department of Energy also recently made $6 billion in funding available to struggling nuclear companies.

While acknowledging that every country must make its own energy decisions, multinational electric utility Iberdrola, the second biggest in Spain, has entirely ditched nuclear and is directing €150 billion ($153 billion) over the next eight years to wind and solar, smart networks, storage solutions and green hydrogen.

"In our view, renewable energy is the main answer to decarbonizing the economy," Xabier Viteri, Iberdrola’s director of renewable energy, told Yahoo News. Strictly speaking, only solar, wind, geothermal and hydropower are considered renewable, as they do not require additional fuel sources to provide energy.

While issues like energy storage and a fine-tuned electrical grid still need to be hammered out, "on paper, technically speaking, it's doable to have electricity generated by a 100% renewable system," Paris-based Phuc-Vinh Nguyen, research fellow at the Jacques Delors Energy Center, told Yahoo News. "But with nuclear, it would be easier."

U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm speaks at the International Atomic Energy Agency.
U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm speaks at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna in 2021. (Leonhard Foeger/Reuters)

An entirely renewable electrical system, he said, would require some sacrifices from consumers, including not charging their electric vehicles at peak times, such as evenings.

In Germany, which had 17 nuclear plants in 2011 when the Fukushima disaster in Japan prompted the government to begin dismantling them, only three nuclear plants remain, generating 11% of the country’s electricity. Those remaining plants, however, are scheduled to be decommissioned in December, a move that has earned Germany criticism, since the country is suffering an energy shortfall thanks to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In apparent retaliation for Europe’s imposition of sanctions on Russia, that country's gas giant Gazprom has cut natural gas flows through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline to 20% of normal capacity, forcing Germany to scramble to make up the shortfall.

Joachim Bühler, managing director of Germany’s safety inspection association TÜV, told the German broadcaster Die Welt this weekend that not only are the three existing plants safe to continue operations, but three plants decommissioned last December are perfectly fine to bring back online. That information "puts more pressure on the government to do so," noted Thorfinn Stainforth, policy analyst at the Institute for European Environmental Policy.

Belgium, where nuclear power provides almost half the country's electricity, also planned to shut down its last seven nuclear reactors by 2025, but given Europe’s natural gas shortages, it decided to extend the lifetime of two of the facilities for another decade.

In the same way that firing up shuttered coal plants has angered environmentalists, the decision to continue relying on nuclear power has rankled some analysts. "We are advocating for a clean energy revolution," Esther Bollendorff, a senior energy analyst at the NGO coalition Climate Action Network Europe, which represents over 1,500 European NGOs, told Yahoo News. "For us, nuclear is not a clean energy. Nuclear is not a cheap energy. It cannot be built up quickly and doesn't respond to the challenge of acting quickly. And it [creates] significant problems with managing waste."

A nuclear power plant in Gundremmingen, Germany.
A nuclear power plant in Gundremmingen, Germany, whose last unit was shut down at the end of 2021. (Lukas Barth/Reuters)

Others, however, have applauded the reappraisal of nuclear power.

London-based energy consultancy firm LucidCatalyst in June released a report titled "Beautiful Nuclear," which argued that "no other electricity generation technology can match [nuclear’s] diversity of beneficial impacts." It pointed out that countries such as Sweden and Finland have combined renewables with nuclear to effectively decarbonize.

In the U.K., where nuclear power provides 15% of electricity, an additional eight reactors are planned. In May, prior to his resignation, Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised that his country would "build one [new nuclear plant] every year, powering homes with clean, safe and reliable energy."

No leader, however, has been more supportive of nuclear energy than French President Emmanuel Macron. In February, Macron called for a "rebirth of France’s nuclear industry," announcing plans to build up to 14 new-generation reactors to battle climate change.

But it's precisely the underperformance of France’s power plants this summer that, for some, is the final nail in the nuclear coffin. With France's fleet of 56 reactors, nuclear power normally provides 70% of its electricity. This year, however, as high temperature records were toppled in much of the country, nuclear power has made up only some 30%. Over half of French reactors are down, some for maintenance, others because cooling waters from nearby rivers, such as the Rhône, are too warm this year. Normally a summer electricity exporter, France was forced this summer to purchase it from Germany.

When people question the reliability of wind and solar, Hanoteaux suggests they "look at the French example. Nuclear is not as reliable as people would like to think."

Nevertheless, the Paris-based International Energy Agency in June issued a report that encouraged more investment in nuclear power. "Building sustainable and clean energy systems will be harder, riskier and more expensive without nuclear," an agency press release accompanying the report stated.

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks at the GE Steam Power System main production site for its nuclear turbine systems.
French President Emmanuel Macron speaks at the GE Steam Power System main production site for its nuclear turbine systems in Belfort, France. (Jean Francois Badias/AFP via Getty Images)

American climatologist Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, doesn’t buy that argument. In his book "The New Climate War," he dismisses the idea of investing in new nuclear power to address climate change as "a fallacy."

"We can decarbonize our economy with existing — and cheaper — renewable energy, such as wind, solar and geothermal," he told Yahoo News, pointing at studies by Mark Z. Jacobson, director of Stanford's Atmosphere/Energy Program, showing that the U.S. doesn't need new nuclear plants as part of the transition. "Investing in nuclear would crowd out investment in cheaper, safer renewable energy. So why would we do it?" Mann also regards the great hope in small modular reactors as misguided, calling them "likely another false promise" and "a costly option that comes with the same risks, including proliferation and an even worse potential waste problem."

But for all the ongoing debate about the role nuclear power should play in order to transition away from fossil fuels, most analysts underscore that almost every country needs to move quickly to build more wind and solar facilities. What's important isn't to what extent nuclear plays a role or doesn't in the energy transition, Elisabeth Cremona, energy and climate data analyst at the think tank Ember, emphasized to Yahoo News. "Accelerating wind and solar deployment remains the central challenge of the next decade," she said.