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3 Reasons Nuclear Power Has Returned to the Energy Debate

By Jason Bordoff

If we believed our own rhetoric about the climate crisis, support for nuclear would be much higher.

If you still needed proof that nuclear energy has returned to the conversation after decades of disfavor, it came with an unexpected celebrity boost last month. Tesla CEO Elon Musk and the Canadian singer Grimes separately used their star power to advocate against the closure of nuclear power plants, echoing growing pressure for California to reconsider plans to shut its last such plant. Over the weekend, Europe also saw a fresh boost for nuclear energy with the leaked draft of a European Commission plan to include zero-carbon nuclear energy on its list of what counts as a “green” investment.

Notwithstanding Germany’s long-planned closure of three of its remaining six nuclear plants on New Year’s Eve, even as Europe struggles with energy shortages, support from celebrities and the EU was just the latest in a string of good news for nuclear energy in 2021. In the United States, private investment in nuclear projects and companies reached eye-popping levels. U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm became increasingly vocal in support of nuclear power as a zero-carbon energy source. In Europe, several countries—including France—recently announced new plans to build nuclear reactors in order to meet looming deadlines to decarbonize their electricity systems.

A decade after the Fukushima nuclear accident set back nuclear power’s prospects worldwide, the outlook may finally be brightening for three reasons: the urgency of meeting increasingly ambitious climate goals, significant advances in nuclear technology, and national security concerns about China’s and Russia’s growing leadership in nuclear power.

Until recently, nuclear power’s outlook seemed bleak. Following Fukushima, Japan suspended nearly all of its 50 nuclear reactors; today, only nine have resumed operations. Several other countries, most notably Germany, decided to phase out nuclear power. Still others, such as Spain, Switzerland, and Italy, scrapped plans to add new nuclear plants. Between 2011 and 2020, a total of 65 reactors were either shut down or did not have their operational lifetimes extended.

In the United States, the number of nuclear reactors peaked at more than 100 in 2012. Since then, 12 reactors have been shut down, while only one was added. (Nuclear power continues to supply about 20 percent of total U.S. electricity generation.) Cheap natural gas unlocked by the shale revolution and dramatic cost declines in wind and solar power have made it harder for nuclear power to compete. Meanwhile, projects to build new nuclear power plants in the United States have ballooned in cost, seen their timelines lengthened, or been scrapped altogether. Two reactors being built in Georgia are now projected to cost twice as much and take more than twice as long to complete as originally estimated. Two other reactors under construction in South Carolina were scrapped in 2017 after $9 billion in expenditures, leaving ratepayers with nothing to show for their money.

So, given all these setbacks, why the sudden new interest in nuclear power?

First, as the urgency to combat the climate crisis grows, there is growing recognition that the pathway to net-zero emissions will be faster, easier, and cheaper if nuclear energy is part of the mix of solutions.

As Grimes explained in her viral video calling for California to reverse its decision to shut the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, “This is crisis mode, and we should be using all the tools that we have.” She went on: “If we push the closure back by a decade, it will help the state decarbonize faster and make the transition to clean energy faster and cheaper.”

The pop star’s claims are backed up by analysis. To achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, global electricity use will need to more than double, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), as cars, home heating, and other sectors are electrified. Vast amounts of electricity will also be required to make fuels, such as hydrogen and ammonia, to power sectors that are harder to electrify, such as ship transportation and steelmaking.

In Global Energy Crisis, Anti-Nuclear Chickens Come Home to Roost

In virtually every country that has closed nuclear plants, clean electricity has been replaced with dirty power.

Why This Energy Crisis Is Different

Climate change and the policies to curb it lie behind skyrocketing gas, coal, and electricity prices in Europe and Asia.

All that electricity must then come from zero-carbon sources. Solar and wind power can provide much of that but not all. They are intermittent, as the sun does not always shine nor the wind always blow, and face other limitations, such as the greater amount of land needed. Batteries, whose costs have fallen sharply, can store renewable energy for hours but not yet days or weeks to handle seasonal fluctuations or extended periods of low winds or gray skies.

Thus, the cheapest path to decarbonize electricity is to have some amount—estimates vary—of so-called firm generation: reliable sources that can produce low-carbon electricity on demand whenever it is needed. Today, nuclear power is the only carbon-free energy source operating at scale that can reliably deliver power at any time.


By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the co-founding dean of the Columbia Climate School.

Continue reading this article at Foreign Policy.

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