If the United States wants to successfully combat climate change, it must become a global leader in nuclear energy. That is the view of Bill Gates, who is urging policymakers and the energy sector to expand its development of advanced nuclear technologies, which would help the country significantly cut carbon emissions.
In his 2018 year-end letter, Gates stresses that greenhouse gas emissions are rising once again. “For me, that just reinforces the fact that the only way to prevent the worst climate change scenario is to get some breakthroughs in clean energy,” writes Gates. Although solar and wind power make up important clean energy sources, Gates believes that these won’t be enough. “[S]olar and wind are intermittent, and we are unlikely to have super cheap batteries anytime soon that will allow us to store sufficient energy for when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing,” states the Microsoft founder. “Besides, electricity accounts for only 25 percent of all emissions. We need to solve the other 75 percent too.”
Gates notes that nuclear energy is “ideal” for tackling climate change, because it is carbon free and available around the clock. He also contends that any disadvantages associated with nuclear, including the threat of accidents, can be overcome with new, more advanced technology. Additionally, Gates commits himself to being an advocate for nuclear energy during 2019. “Unfortunately, America is no longer the global leader on nuclear energy that it was 50 years ago,” continues Gates. “To regain this position, it will need to commit new funding, update regulations, and show investors that it’s serious.”
A bleak outlook
Gates’ appeal for a renewed focus on nuclear energy aligns with a growing number of experts who are expressing concern about the industry’s future in the U.S. Although the U.S. continues to lead the way in nuclear power production, it may not hold the title for long; the number of nuclear power plants will decline sharply in the coming years, due to retiring plants and a lack of modern infrastructure.
According to 2017 figures, U.S. nuclear power plants produce some 99 gigawatts (GW) of energy, which amounts to around 30 percent of global nuclear power generation and 20 percent of U.S. energy production. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that in the most likely scenario, nuclear power generation will slump to 79 GW by 2050, a 20 GW decline. Since 2013, six nuclear plants have been retired, and another 11 are expected to follow suit by 2025. “Nuclear power in the U.S. has definitely been squeezed, primarily because of the decline in natural gas prices caused by the fracking boom,” explains Steve Klemmer, director of energy research and analysis with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Existing plants have become a challenge economically and new ones are expensive to build. Currently, there are only two reactors under construction.”
Other factors, including the natural gas boom in West Texas, could further reduce nuclear’s share of energy production. The EIA notes that if natural gas prices remain low and costs for maintaining nuclear plants rise, nuclear plants could generate as little as 18 gigawatts of energy by 2050.
Some clean energy advocates worry that any decline in nuclear power production will have a negative impact on cutting carbon emissions. This is because retired nuclear plants are generally being replaced by natural gas plants, which still emit a significant amount of carbon dioxide. Currently, nuclear energy generation accounts for 50 percent of America’s clean energy output.
Taking steps to support nuclear power
Despite the gloomy outlook for nuclear energy in the U.S., hope is not yet lost. As a clean energy source, nuclear power could help the U.S. meet rising energy demand without increasing the country’s emissions. Moreover, the imposition of a tax on carbon may make nuclear more attractive to industry investors.
A report by Doug Vine from the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions notes that electrification of the transport system could save nuclear energy from its projected decline. Estimates suggest that if the transition to electric vehicles proceeds quickly, energy demand will rise by 75 percent by 2050. This, argues Vine, could well mean that even older nuclear plants would again become economically viable.
Another plus for nuclear energy identified in the report is that excess power could be stored for future use. Vine proposes turning unused nuclear power into hydrogen, which could then be deployed as electricity when energy demand increases beyond what renewables can supply.
Vine also examines the prospects for federal regulations, including carbon pricing. According to the EIA, a price of $15 per ton of carbon would result in an increased dependence on nuclear energy through 2050.
However, carbon pricing would only be one element of a broader energy strategy. As Vine notes on the prospects of the nuclear sector’s growth, “[S]table policies that promote a long-term movement toward a low carbon future by mid-century and beyond are necessary to stimulate the high level of investment required.”
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Jordan Smith is a freelance journalist and translator covering issues related to energy, the environment, and politics. His work has appeared on the independent news site Opposing Views, and at the Canadian Labour Institute.