U.S. Democrats’ Curious Disdain For Nuclear Power

  • Date: 31/05/19
  • Robert Bryce, National Post

Until they embrace nuclear energy as a key to reducing emissions, the party’s many presidential candidates will be hard to take seriously on climate change.

Climate change is the No. 1 issue for Democrats, with a recent poll showing 82 percent of Democratic voters listed it as their top priority. To appeal to those voters, contenders for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination routinely call climate change an “existential threat” to the nation and the world. But amid all their rhetoric and promises of massively expensive plans to tackle the problem, these same Democrats — with the notable exception of Senator Cory Booker — steadfastly refuse to utter two critical words: nuclear power.

The Democrats’ disdain for nuclear energy deserves attention, because there is no credible pathway toward large-scale decarbonization that doesn’t include lots of it. That fact was reinforced Tuesday, when the International Energy Agency published a report declaring that without more nuclear energy, global carbon dioxide emissions will surge and “efforts to transition to a cleaner energy system will become drastically harder and more costly.”

How costly? The IEA estimates that “$1.6 trillion in additional investment would be required in the electricity sector in advanced economies from 2018 to 2040” if the use of nuclear energy continued to decline. That, in turn, would mean higher prices, as “electricity supply costs would be close to $80 billion higher per year on average for advanced economies as a whole.” […]

The timing of the IEA report is particularly relevant for New York City, which gets about 25 percent of its electricity from the two reactors at the Indian Point Energy Center in Buchanan, N.Y. Next April, Indian Point’s Unit 2 reactor will be permanently shuttered. In April 2021, its remaining reactor, Unit 3, will likewise be retired. When those reactors close, their output will largely be replaced by three gas-fired power plants, which is no surprise: Whenever nuclear reactors are shuttered, they get replaced by plants that burn natural gas, and that means increased emissions of carbon dioxide.

In 2013, when Michael Bloomberg was mayor, his office issued a report that estimated closing Indian Point and replacing it with gas-fired generation would “increase New York City’s greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 15 percent.” It also said the city “depends on Indian Point for reliability as congested transmission lines limit power imports from more distant locations.” But current mayor — and Democratic presidential hopeful — Bill de Blasio steadfastly refuses to acknowledge Indian Point’s importance, or the potential of nuclear power in general. Last month, de Blasio unveiled his $14 billion NYC Green New Deal plan, which aims to cut New York City’s emissions by 30 percent by 2030. With the looming loss of Indian Point, that 30 percent goal will effectively become 45 percent.

Another Democratic contender, Beto O’Rourke, has dubbed climate change “our greatest threat” and says he will “mobilize $5 trillion” to cut domestic greenhouse-gas emissions to zero by 2050. The word “nuclear” does not appear anywhere on his website, just as it’s absent from nearly every other Democratic presidential candidate’s site. That’s a shame, because the IEA’s report is just the latest in a long line of scientific papers pointing to the need for nuclear energy. In 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declared that achieving deep cuts in emissions will “require more intensive use” of low-emission technologies “such as renewable energy [and] nuclear energy.”38

This is, frankly, one of the biggest and longest-running disconnects in American politics: The leaders of the Democratic party insist that the U.S. must make big cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions because of the threat posed by climate change, but for nearly five decades, they have either ignored or professed outright opposition to nuclear energy. The last time the party’s platform contained a positive statement about nuclear power was way back in 1972.

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