Guest essay by Eric Worrall
If we want to fight the climate crisis, we must embrace nuclear power
Mon 21 Jun 2021 20.18 AEST
A powerful form of clean energy already exists – and it is far more reliable than wind and solar
On 30 April, the Indian Point nuclear power plant 30 miles north of New York City was shut down. For decades the facility provided the overwhelming majority of the city’s carbon-free electricity as well as good union jobs for almost a thousand people. Federal regulators had deemed the plant perfectly safe.
New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, a key figure behind the move, said that the shuttering of Indian Point brought us “a big step closer to achieving our aggressive clean energy goals”. It’s hard to reconcile that optimism with the data that’s recently come out. The first full month without the plant has seen a 46% increase in the average carbon intensity of statewide electric generation compared to when Indian Point was fully operational. New York replaced clean energy from Indian Point with fossil fuel sources like natural gas.
It’s a nightmare we should have seen coming. In Germany, nuclear power formed around a third of the country’s power generation in 2000, when a Green party-spearheaded campaign managed to secure the gradual closure of plants, citing health and safety concerns. Last year, that share fell to 11%, with all remaining stations scheduled to close by next year. A recent paper found that the last two decades of phased nuclear closures led to an increase in CO2 emissions of 36.3 megatons a year – with the increased air pollution potentially killing 1,100 people annually.
So why, given the stakes of global warming, is there still so much hostility to nuclear power?
Some of the paranoia is no doubt rooted in cold war-era associations of peaceful nuclear power with dangerous nuclear weaponry. We can and should separate these two, just like we are able to separate nuclear bombs from nuclear medicine. And we should also push back against popular narratives around Chernobyl and other disasters that simply aren’t replicable with modern technology. …
Other objections to nuclear power, like its reliance on mining, are also not unique to nuclear. Renewables require destructive extraction to unearth lithium and other critical minerals. The answer to those concerns is simple: we should demand environmental and labor regulations from the state and defend good working conditions as our primary consideration. …
I had to check the link twice to verify this was actually published in The Guardian. Apart from the concern about CO2 emissions, most of it reads like something I could have written.
What does this attack on nuclear closures mean for the future of renewable energy?
If even The Guardian is prepared to slam renewable energy proponents for wanting to close nuclear plants, I suggest the renewable energy death spiral has well and truly begun. We frequently laugh at the innumeracy of green claims that renewable energy will somehow save the planet from CO2 emissions and pollution, but clearly a few of them have woken up and started doing the sums.
Having said that, the Guardian doesn’t exactly have clean hands over the closure of nuclear plants. Plenty of Guardian articles have appeared over the years broadly supporting nuclear plant closures, including support for closing Indian Point, though to be fair they also print the occasional pro-nuclear article.