Does nuclear power have a place in a green-energy future?

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“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Countries around the world have set ambitious goals to fight climate change by drastically reducing their emissions in the coming decades. Doing so means replacing carbon-heavy power sources, like coal and gas, with green-energy solutions. Renewables like solar, wind and hydroelectric power will certainly play a major role. But environmentalists, scientists and lawmakers are divided on whether or not nuclear power should be part of a clean-energy future.

In the 1980s, nuclear power provided about 17 percent of the world’s energy. But high-profile disasters at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl led many countries to stop investing in new plants. More recently, the 2011 crisis at the Fukushima plant in Japan resulted in even more skepticism of nuclear power’s safety. Today, 10 percent of global energy comes from nuclear sources.

In recent years, however, the urgency of reducing emissions has led to a reconsideration of nuclear energy in some circles. Though it does create harmful waste, nuclear power doesn’t release any carbon into the air. This has led to debate over whether clean energy plans for the future should include an investment in new nuclear capacity.

Why there’s debate

In the eyes of many experts, any serious plan for decarbonizing the world’s energy infrastructure must include nuclear power. They argue that renewables such as solar and wind, for all of their merits, have too many shortcomings to realistically meet global energy demand. Without sufficient nuclear capacity, countries would have to lean on fossil fuels. Japan as well as the states of California and New York all saw their total emissions go up after shutting down nuclear plants in recent years.

Supporters also say the public’s idea of nuclear power — defined by massive plants that pump out hazardous waste and are constantly at risk of catastrophe — is in no way representative of the reality of modern nuclear technologies. A number of companies, including one started by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, are developing new models for reactors that could soon prove to be cleaner, more efficient and virtually immune to meltdowns.

Some of the opposition to nuclear power echoes critiques of the past. Despite the advances made in the past few decades, critics say, nuclear waste is still a problem, and the risk of meltdown will never be zero. And there are concerns that expanding nuclear energy could lead more nations to develop nuclear weapons.

Practical concerns also temper enthusiasm for a nuclear future. The next generation of reactors, heralded as a game changer by supporters, still haven’t been proven in the real world. Even if those technologies are as revolutionary as advertised, skeptics say it could take decades before they make a real difference in the global energy grid — too long if the worst outcomes of climate change are to be avoided.

What’s next

The $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill passed by the Senate in August includes $12 billion for retrofitting current nuclear plants and research into new reactor technologies. The fate of that bill likely depends on whether Democrats can reach an agreement on the larger social spending bill currently being negotiated within the party.

Perspectives

Supporters

Renewables won’t be enough to meet global energy needs

“Core to all of this is the degree to which you think we can actually meet climate goals with 100 percent renewables. If you don't believe we can do it, and you care about the climate, you are forced to think about something like nuclear.” — Leon Clarke, research director at the Center for Global Sustainability, to CNET

We need to use every available option to avert climate catastrophe

“My perspective is not that I think everything should be nuclear all the time. I think it’s really important that it’s a strong mix. And I think we need to deploy wind and solar and batteries right now at scale as much as possible. But we shouldn’t have these solutions taken away from us or from future Americans, frankly.” — MC Hammond, Good Energy Collective senior fellow, to the New York Times

Wind and solar are too unreliable to support the power grid on their own

“Nuclear energy skeptics chirp that wind and solar can make up the difference. But the wind does not blow all the time and the sun might not shine for days … when huge winter or summer storms decide to park over your city or town. And electricity storage technology is not advanced enough to cover the deficit.” — Murad Antia, Tampa Bay Times

Cutting back on nuclear power has proved to make emissions worse

“In some countries, nuclear power plants that could have operated for years to come were shut down because of policy decisions by governments or unfavorable market conditions. In many of those cases, fossil fuels filled a considerable part of the gap in the power supply, increasing the emissions challenge we now face.” — Fatih Birol and Rafael Mariano Grossi, CNN

Nuclear power is safe now and will be even safer in the future

“Contrary to what many people believe, nuclear energy is safer than any other form of energy, and there are ready solutions for handling the radioactive waste. New nuclear designs, including small modular reactors, will be even safer than existing plants and can yield far less waste.” — Leonard Rodberg, Daily News

The risks of nuclear catastrophe are grossly overstated

“The problem is a misunderstanding of risks. Humans are constantly exposed to radiation — from the sun, from the cosmos, from the very ground we walk on. Even the most fearsome and publicized nuclear reactor accidents have added relatively little to background levels.” — David Von Drehle, Washington Post

Opponents

Renewable energy technologies can be enough on their own

“The drawbacks to nuclear are compounded by the burgeoning success of renewables — both solar and wind are getting cheaper and more efficient, year after year. There is also a growing realisation that a combination of renewables, smart storage, energy efficiency and more flexible grids can now be delivered at scale and at speed — anywhere in the world.” — Jonathon Porritt, Guardian

The world doesn’t have time to wait for next-gen nuclear

“When it comes to averting the imminent effects of climate change, even the cutting edge of nuclear technology will prove to be too little, too late. Put simply, given the economic trends in existing plants and those under construction, nuclear power cannot positively impact climate change in the next ten years or more.” — Allison Macfarlane, Foreign Affairs

A major ramp-up in nuclear technologies isn’t economically feasible

“While nuclear power may have once been cheaper than wind or solar, the economics have since changed dramatically. Nuclear power plants are very expensive to build and the economics of nuclear power are getting steadily worse. By contrast, renewables continue to come down in price.” — Ian Lowe, Conversation

There’s no way to guarantee that nuclear plants will be safe

“People around the world have witnessed the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents. It is more than enough to believe that a safe nuclear power plant is nothing but a myth.” — Jang Daul, Korea Times

More nuclear power could lead to more nuclear weapons

“Some nations — India and Pakistan, and in all probability Israel — became nuclear powers after originally seeking nuclear technology for research or to develop nuclear power. … This is important: The technology used to turn on lights or charge mobile phones shouldn’t need to involve national or international defence apparatus.” — Editorial, Nature

Nuclear waste is still a major problem

“Nuclear waste lasts for hundreds of thousands of years before they are half-decayed. Our United States government — perhaps the longest continuous government in the world — is only 232 years old. Who will be around to manage uranium wastes?” — David Ross, Courier-Journal

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images

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