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There Really, Really Isn’t a Silver Bullet for Climate Change

Nuclear reactor on the Hudson River, north of New York City.

Nuclear reactor on the Hudson River, north of New York City. Shutterstock

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Nuclear power might be part of a Green New Deal, but it can’t meet all U.S. energy needs.

When the fate of the planet is at stake, a single precedent starts to seem like a blueprint.

Most Americans, as far as pollsters can tell, want the United States to honor its commitment under the Paris Agreement on climate change. According to that pact, the United States must, by 2025, cut its carbon emissions 26 percent below their all-time peak. That will be hard. To make the Paris goal, the U.S. would have to cut carbon by 2.6 percent every year for the next seven years. And it has simply never cut its emissions that fast in such a sustained way before.

In fact, since the end of World War II, only one country has pulled off such a feat: France. Starting in 1974, France undertook an extensive build-out of its nuclear-power industry, and slashed its carbon emissions by an average rate of 2.9 percent every year from 1979 to 1988, while still growing its economy. No country has done anything like that before or since.

It has the promise of a good strategy. And last week, it’s just what the center-right commentator Andrew Sullivan ordered. Writing in New York, Sullivan argued that the United States should undertake “a massive nuclear energy program” as a “radically moderate answer to climate change.” Unlike renewables, nuclear power doesn’t cease to work when the sun sets or when the wind stops blowing. It is already technologically feasible, and it’s been quickly scaled up in the past. The ambition of a nuclear expansion could match that of the Green New Deal, except with all the twiddly socialism bits removed.

To his credit, Sullivan’s case for nuclear power includes long lists of its drawbacks. New nuclear plants are very expensive to build. Nuclear accidents, while extremely rare, are extremely expensive to remediate (if they can be remediated at all). But because the well-being of humanity is in jeopardy, these cons should bow to the pros, Sullivan says. After all, he asserts, nuclear power “can potentially meet all our energy demands.”

Isn’t it nice to think so? Sullivan’s sincere concern for the issue is welcome, and he is right to compliment the no-half-measures aspiration of the Green New Deal. He is also correct to argue that a nuclear build-out could lower the United States’ carbon emissions. But, alas, nuclear power is not a full answer—or even half an answer—to climate change. It simply cannot meet all of the U.S.’s energy demands. And by casting a nuclear build-out as a kind of moderate climate counteroffer, he reveals a misunderstanding about the Green New Deal itself—and what makes it notable.

Let there be no mistake: Nuclear power plants can generate enormous amounts of carbon-free electricity. A rapid increase in nuclear energy would slash emissions from the power sector, as the French example makes clear. Even today, France’s carbon density—its carbon emissions per capita—ranks well below that of Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States, according to the Global Carbon Atlas.

But you can’t put a nuclear reactor in a tractor-trailer or a steel plant. Nuclear can only reduce emissions from the power sector, and “the energy system is bigger than just electricity,” says Sam Ori, the executive director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago. “While I think nuclear has real potential as a means to decarbonizing electricity, you still have a lot of sectors to worry about.”

In fact, electricity makes up a smaller and smaller part of the climate problem. Right now, the power sector contributes only about a third of annual U.S. carbon emissions related to energy production. When you factor in land change and agriculture (read: deforestation and all those pesky cows), electricity is responsible for only about a quarter of annual U.S. emissions. And its share is declining. Carbon emissions from the U.S. power sector have fallen 28 percent since 2005. Meanwhile, emissions from other parts of the economy—transportation, agriculture, industry—have fallen by only 5 percent.

“Even if you figure out electricity, you still have to figure out industry. You still have to figure out transportation,” Ori told me. Although we have partial answers to some of the problems posed by those sectors—everyone could buy electric cars, for instance, and charge them off the new nuclear-powered grid—we don’t have total ones. We still have no electrified way of moving around freight. Electrified air travel remains notional. All the nuclear plants in the world could not reduce the importance of oil in steel production. Solving all these problems will require some kind of public policy, Ori said; even electric cars won’t replace their gas-powered brethren without a regulatory nudge. Sullivan’s nuclear build-out has nothing to say about such challenges.

Robinson Meyer is a staff writer at The Atlantic, which originally published this article. 

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