Nuclear power, once shunned by many Democrats and environmentalists, is gaining acceptance among the party and activists as a clean alternative to fossil fuels amid soaring energy costs and a sluggish transition to renewables.
Proponents argue that the carbon-free energy source is clean and affordable, can be generated around the clock and is already prevalent. Wind and solar power, meanwhile, are intermittent and hamstrung by limited battery storage capabilities.
“There’s been a slow progression, but sufficient modeling that has been done has convinced a lot of people in the environmental community, certainly around the importance of preserving the existing fleet,” said Doug Vine, director of energy analysis at the nonpartisan Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. “There’s a recognition of not wanting to backslide on emissions reductions.”
Evidence of the changing tune among climate hawks is prevalent.
Democrats pumped billions of dollars into nuclear tax incentives in their recently approved tax and climate spending legislation. Included were production credits for existing facilities and incentives to create smaller reactors that are more affordable, quicker to build, safer to operate and last more than six decades.
As part of last year’s bipartisan infrastructure bill, $6 billion was allocated toward the country’s aging nuclear facilities. The Department of Energy’s top nuclear official, Kathryn Huff, recently told the Washington Examiner that the Biden administration is also focused on boosting domestic uranium enrichment, which is vital for nuclear energy production, to rely less on Russian supplies.
California and its Democratic leaders have reversed course and approved legislation to extend the life of its lone nuclear plant. They feared the scheduled closure of the Diablo Canyon facility could result in power shortages for years.
In a recent op-ed in The Sacramento Bee titled “Why I changed my mind about California’s Diablo Canyon nuclear plant,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California said the state “must consider every measure to counter the coming onslaught” of natural disasters.
“If California is to lead the clean energy transition, as state law mandates, Diablo must keep operating, at least for the time being,” the Democrat wrote.
Public sentiment has shifted slightly on nuclear power, though the country remains largely split.
A Pew Research poll from May 2021 showed that 47% opposed expanding nuclear energy. A Pew survey from January showed 26% opposed nuclear power and an increasing number, 37%, struck a neutral stance.
The U.S. had 54 nuclear plants, home to 92 reactors, operating in 28 states as of May. The average age of nuclear plants is 40 years, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Since 1990, nuclear power has accounted for about 20% of the country’s annual electricity production and makes up roughly half of all carbon-free electricity.
Over the past eight years, the U.S. has lost more than 10 gigawatts of nuclear power from 13 reactors, or the ability to power more than 5 million homes with zero emissions, Mr. Vine said.
Doug True, vice president and chief nuclear officer of the Nuclear Energy Institute, said the incentives in Democrats’ tax and climate spending plan, dubbed the Inflation Reduction Act, will put “nuclear on the same level playing field as renewables.”
“Nuclear is one of those tools that can provide reliable power 24/7-365, as we’ve demonstrated over the last 50 years in a way that even renewables and storage would have difficulty,” he said at a recent event hosted by the U.S. Energy Association.
The fresh look at nuclear energy extends far beyond American borders, particularly in countries reliant on oil and natural gas imports that want to become more energy independent.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida directed his government last month to begin building smaller and safer nuclear reactors to meet its energy needs and its 2050 carbon-neutral deadline. The move marked a sharp reversal for the country, which shuttered many of its plants after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster and said it would focus only on restarting plants.
South Korea reversed plans to phase out nuclear plants this year, and the United Kingdom wants to make nuclear power a pillar of its energy strategy. Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently greenlighted a multibillion-dollar plant.
Plenty of environmentalists still oppose nuclear power for multiple reasons, including costs, safety and hazardous waste disposal.
Greenpeace International considers nuclear energy “dirty, dangerous and expensive.” The Natural Resources Defense Council, which has a “Nuclear Power 101” page devoted to explaining “how its costs outweigh its benefits,” advocated against saving California’s Diablo Canyon plant.
“Late August in Sacramento is notorious for ill-considered proposals that could never survive rigorous analysis or inclusive public review and are never seen again,” Ralph Cavanagh, co-director of the council’s energy program, wrote in a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed. “This one should be soundly rejected.”
The Russia-Ukraine war has also renewed debates and concerns about nuclear energy. Russia’s shelling and takeover of some of Ukraine’s nuclear plants have been characterized as incredibly irresponsible and dangerous and prompted fears of a catastrophe like Chernobyl.
“You can’t design anything for war,” Bud Albright, president and CEO of the U.S. Nuclear Industry Council, said during the U.S. Energy Association event. “If you’re at war, bombs falling, you don’t design architecture for that, whether it’s a power plant or buildings.”