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Is This The Death Knell For Nuclear?

Nuclear energy is a divisive…

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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Nuclear Is Not A Catch-All Solution To Climate Change

Polling shows that the majority of United States citizens want the Trump administration to honor the country’s Obama-era commitment to the Paris Agreement to combat global climate change. Under the agreement, from which President Trump withdrew in June of 2017, the United States would have to cut its carbon emissions to 26 percent less than their highest documented levels by 2025. Even if the federal government were to pivot on Paris and recommit to the agreement, meeting this target would not be an easy feat.

In order to meet the target set by the Paris Agreement, the United States would have to reduce their carbon footprint by 2.6 percent each year over the next seven years, a lofty goal that the country has never come close to meeting in any semblance of a sustained way. Difficult in no way means impossible, however. Look no further than France, which managed to pull off the impressive feat of cutting their carbon emissions from 1979 to 1988 by an average rate of 2.9 percent annually while still growing their economy. How did they achieve this? The answer is so simple it can be distilled into a word: nuclear.

Nuclear holds a lot of promise for a greener energy future in the United States, and recently pundits on both the right and the left alike have taken up the cause in various public forums, from think pieces by center-right commentator Andrew Sullivan calling for a “massive nuclear energy program” in New York Magazine to Time Magazine “Hero of the Environment” Michael Shellenberger urging the green energy community to give up on renewables entirely in favor of far more energy-dense nuclear power.

Despite the ever-increasing number of voices calling for nuclear as a catch-all solution to climate change, however, there are still a lot of drawbacks to nuclear power to consider as well. Building new nuclear plants is extremely expensive, nuclear accidents--while very, very rare--are both expensive and difficult to remediate, and there is still a lot of public mistrust and political adversity when it comes to nuclear.

As much as we would all love to have a silver bullet solution for climate change, and as much promise as nuclear energy holds, no single solution is so simple. Although nuclear power plants are capable of producing massive quantities of completely carbon-free energy and ramping up the United States’ nuclear capacity would directly lead to a drop in carbon admissions (as in the example of France), nuclear energy simply can’t meet all of the energy demands of the world’s biggest economy. Related: Why Oil Markets Can’t Find A Solid Footing

Nuclear’s potential is stymied by a number of logistical limitations. While nuclear can massively reduce emissions within the power sector, it can’t be used in many industrial sectors. Nuclear won’t work as a green solution for transportation or for emissions-heavy industrial necessities like smelting steel. As executive director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago Sam Ori was quoted in The Atlantic, “the energy system is bigger than just electricity […] While I think nuclear has real potential as a means to decarbonizing electricity, you still have a lot of sectors to worry about.”

Emissions from the U.S. power sector are already on a downward trend, falling 28 percent since 2005. Meanwhile, the industries that would not benefit as directly from nuclear are the ones that need the most help. Since 2005 carbon emissions from transportation, agriculture, and industrial sectors have fallen by just 5 percent.

All this is not to say that the expansion of the United States nuclear energy sector isn’t a worthwhile endeavor. It would undoubtedly make and immediate and considerable positive impact on the nation’s carbon emissions. But it won’t fix all of the other myriad ways that the national economy contributes to climate change. If the U.S. has any hope of meeting that target set by the Paris Agreement, or even coming close, it will require a much more multi-faceted and expansive approach.

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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