In the ongoing quest for sustainable and renewable energy, the United States can take both an abject lesson and an object lesson from the European Union. EU leaders recently added natural gas and nuclear energy to their list of sustainable energy sources, simultaneously engaging in nonsense and in sensible solutions.
Natural gas, like coal and crude oil, is considered a fossil fuel because “they were formed from the buried remains of plants and animals that lived millions of years ago,” according to the U.S. Energy Information Center. The burning of natural gas generates lower levels of carbon emissions and pollutants compared with coal or oil, but the impact still is deleterious.
Nuclear energy, on the other hand, deserves serious consideration in the United States as Americans strive to slash carbon emissions and mitigate the threat of climate change. Efforts to harness wind and solar power are crucial to rethinking power production, but nuclear power also should be part of the conversation.
Nuclear power is carbon-free. While there are valid concerns about radioactive byproducts, those concerns should not eliminate the issue from the discussion.
Such discussions have been held in the past. Starting when the Yankee Rowe Nuclear Power Station came online in 1960 in Rowe, Mass., nuclear energy was viewed as a panacea. That view quickly changed. Concern grew about waste; a partial core meltdown in 1979 at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island highlighted the dangers; and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine directly led to 31 deaths and generations worth of environmental degradation.
More recently, a 2011 earthquake threatened a nuclear plant in Japan, resulting in the evacuation of 150,000 people and long-term concerns about radioactivity.
The safety of nuclear power plants remains a concern. But the United States has more than 80 active plants, operating safely while producing approximately 20 percent of the nation’s electricity. The Columbia Generating Station, near Richland, produces 10 percent of Washington’s energy.
The Obama and Trump administrations both promoted efforts to develop nuclear energy, with Obama’s energy secretary at one point saying: “Nuclear energy remains very important. It remains by far the biggest source of carbon-free electricity.”
That perspective is taking hold. In 2014, The Washington Post ran an article under the headline, “Why climate change is forcing some environmentalists to back nuclear power.” It quoted four leading climate scientists as writing, “In the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power.”
For many environmentalists, that reality might be difficult to embrace, but it is a fact that should guide this nation’s energy policy.
The most pressing issue regarding nuclear energy is the waste. Congress on multiple occasions has approved a waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but efforts have stalled. Congress and the Biden administration should again pursue a repository that would rest under tons of rock, providing a secure location for not only power plant waste but remnants from the Hanford site.
With the growing threat of climate change and the increasing need for solutions, American leaders should be open to all options for energy production. Not every region of the country is blessed with inexpensive, renewable hydropower like the Northwest, and the need to replace coal-fired plants is existential.
Nuclear energy needs to be part of the discussion and, perhaps, part of the solution.