Is Bernie Sanders Right That It’s Time to Phase Out Nuclear Energy?

30 years after Chernobyl, some say we need nuclear power to stop climate change.

Will Boisvert and Jim Riccio May 3, 2016

The Civaux Nuclear Power Plant on the Vienne River southeast of Poitiers, features 180-meter-high cooling towers, which are the tallest in France. (Guillaume Souvant/AFP/Getty Images)

In advance of New York’s April 19 pri­ma­ry, pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Bernie Sanders char­ac­ter­ized the 40-plus-year-old Indi­an Point nuclear pow­er sta­tion locat­ed 36 miles north of Mid­town Man­hat­tan as a cat­a­stro­phe wait­ing to hap­pen” that should be shut down.

'The climate will definitely feel the burn: Closing a typical 1,000-megawatt reactor would directly or indirectly put an extra 3 million to 8 million tons of carbon dioxide into the air each year.'

Sanders’ state­ments in New York were no sur­prise. His ambi­tious plan to com­bat cli­mate change includes a phase-out of the nation’s nuclear pow­er plants, which cur­rent­ly account for about one-fifth of U.S. elec­tric­i­ty pro­duc­tion. Instead, he pro­pos­es work­ing toward a 100 per­cent clean-ener­gy sys­tem by invest­ing heav­i­ly in wind, solar and geothermal.

Hillary Clin­ton, mean­while, has called for invest­ment in nuclear pow­er along­side renew­able ener­gy as part of her plan to mod­ern­ize the U.S. ener­gy infra­struc­ture. She oppos­es shut­ter­ing Indi­an Point, which is cur­rent­ly being reviewed for license renew­al by the Nuclear Reg­u­la­to­ry Commission.

As a sen­a­tor, Clin­ton called for greater over­sight and increased safe­ty mea­sures at the nuclear pow­er plant, but in an inter­view with the New York tele­vi­sion show Cap­i­tal Tonight in ear­ly April, she paint­ed Sanders’ call to close it as naïve. We also have to be real­is­tic,” she said. You get 25 per­cent of the elec­tric­i­ty in the greater New York City area from Indi­an Point. I don’t want mid­dle-class tax­pay­ers to see a huge rate increase.”

Nuclear pow­er isn’t just a flash­point in the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign; it’s a sub­ject of deep dis­agree­ment among envi­ron­men­tal­ists. While a vibrant anti-nuclear move­ment once guid­ed pro­gres­sive opin­ion, some greens have reversed their stance because of the imme­di­a­cy of cli­mate change. The oper­a­tion of nuclear pow­er plants is vir­tu­al­ly car­bon-neu­tral, although the process­es of min­ing and enrich­ing ura­ni­um fuel, oper­at­ing back­up gen­er­a­tors and dis­pos­ing of waste all pro­duce emis­sions. Still, nuclear presents far less of a threat to the cli­mate than oil and fracked gas, and advo­cates say that the oppo­si­tion is more ide­o­log­i­cal than evidence-based.

Poten­tial safe­ty threats are anoth­er mat­ter: The Cher­nobyl explo­sion and melt­down, which took place 30 years ago, as well as the 2011 dis­as­ter at Fukushi­ma cast a long shad­ow over the nuclear-ener­gy debate. Ura­ni­um min­ing can also be haz­ardous to work­ers and the envi­ron­ment. And then there’s the prob­lem of where to store spent fuel rods.

Is Bernie right to call for a phase-out of Indi­an Point and push for 100 per­cent renew­ables? Or do we need nuclear, for now, to pow­er us to a low-car­bon future? To dis­cuss, In These Times invit­ed Will Boisvert, a jour­nal­ist who writes on ener­gy, envi­ron­men­tal and urban pol­i­cy for The New York Observ­er, Dis­sent and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and Jim Ric­cio, a nuclear pol­i­cy ana­lyst at Green­peace USA.

WILL: As a left­ist, I’ve cheered on Bernie Sanders’ eco­nom­ic poli­cies, health­care plan and Wall Street bash­ing. But as an envi­ron­men­tal­ist, I cringe at his crazy cam­paign against nuclear pow­er. Here’s how crazy it is: With cli­mate change inten­si­fy­ing, Bernie would trash America’s biggest source of clean energy.

Nuclear pow­er pro­duces 20 per­cent of America’s elec­tric­i­ty and 59 per­cent of its low-car­bon elec­tric­i­ty. That’s 42 per­cent more than all renew­ables and three times as much as the nation’s wind and solar sec­tors com­bined. So what would Bernie’s plan do with that gush­er of emis­sions-free energy?

Shut it down, that’s what. He plans to ban the reli­cens­ing of reac­tors, which would cut 20 to 40 years off the ser­vice life of nuclear plants, on the way to com­plete­ly erad­i­cat­ing atom­ic energy.

The result would be a wind­fall for King Coal and fracked gas. Even if nukes were nom­i­nal­ly replaced by renew­able capac­i­ty, every kilo­watt-hour of renew­able elec­tric­i­ty that’s used to replace lost nuclear pow­er is a kilo­watt-hour that’s not avail­able to dis­place fos­sil fuels from the grid. Under Sanders’ plan, coal and gas plants would blaze on while renew­ables fruit­less­ly plug the gap left by a nuclear phase-out. Decar­boniza­tion would make no head­way for decades. The cli­mate will def­i­nite­ly feel the burn: Clos­ing a typ­i­cal 1,000-megawatt reac­tor would direct­ly or indi­rect­ly put an extra 3 mil­lion to 8 mil­lion tons of car­bon diox­ide into the air each year, by my cal­cu­la­tion. A nuclear shut­down would cause bil­lions of tons of need­less green­house emissions.

Bernie and oth­ers on the Left some­times trum­pet all this as a pop­ulist insur­rec­tion against a par­a­sitic nuclear indus­try depen­dent on gov­ern­ment bailouts. But the real issue is safe­ty fears, voiced in Bernie’s many com­ments about the Fukushi­ma nuclear acci­dent, which play to a famil­iar green theme that nuclear pow­er is a unique threat to pub­lic health that must be abol­ished. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, these anx­i­eties have grown dras­ti­cal­ly out of pro­por­tion to actu­al risks while ignor­ing the health ben­e­fits nuclear con­fers by replac­ing pol­lut­ing coal-fired pow­er. (Cli­mate sci­en­tist James Hansen reck­ons the total num­ber of lives saved by nuclear pow­er at 1.8 mil­lion.) We should wor­ry less about van­ish­ing­ly like­ly nuclear acci­dents and more about coal plants, whose pol­lu­tion kills 7,500 Amer­i­cans annu­al­ly — sev­en times the total Fukushi­ma toll every year.

A pol­i­tics of exag­ger­at­ed fear has stoked the anti-nuclear move­ment for decades, and Bernie’s most recent anti-nuclear cru­sade is a left-wing ana­log to the Trumped-up fears — of Mus­lims, immi­grants, WMDs — that dis­fig­ure right-wing pol­i­tics. Luck­i­ly, many pro­gres­sives are start­ing to reject that fear, and to accept nuclear power’s cru­cial role in reduc­ing the real risks of glob­al warm­ing, pol­lu­tion and ener­gy poverty.

JIM: Belit­tling the dam­age from the Fukushi­ma fias­co ignores the very real impacts of radioac­tive land con­t­a­m­i­na­tion and the fact that 80 per­cent of the Fukushi­ma fall­out blew into the Pacif­ic rather than over Tokyo. Despite avoid­ing most of the Fukushi­ma fall­out, the nuclear cri­sis is esti­mat­ed to cost Japan over $100 bil­lion. Fall­out from a melt­down on U.S. soil could be even worse.

Five years after the fias­co at Fukushi­ma in Japan and 30 years after the explo­sion of the Cher­nobyl reac­tor in Ukraine, nuclear pow­er in the Unit­ed States is fad­ing and fad­ing fast. Despite the nuclear industry’s hype around a so-called renais­sance, more new nuclear capac­i­ty has been shelved than is actu­al­ly under con­struc­tion in the Unit­ed States.

Rub­ber-stamped renewals extend­ed many nuclear plant licens­es an addi­tion­al 20 years, but many nuclear reac­tors are now fac­ing shut­downs due to increased oper­at­ing costs and abysmal eco­nom­ics. Old nuclear reac­tors are find­ing it hard to com­pete with the low cost of renew­able ener­gy and nat­ur­al gas, and as a result are announc­ing their ear­ly” retirements.

Mean­while, new nuclear reac­tors are so stu­pid­ly expen­sive that few will ever be built. Despite U.S. gov­ern­ment loan guar­an­tees and years of gov­ern­ment sub­si­dies for nuclear pow­er, there are only two new plants, with five nuclear reac­tors, cur­rent­ly under con­struc­tion in the Unit­ed States. Both of the new nuclear plant projects in Geor­gia and South Car­oli­na are already well over bud­get and behind sched­ule. Accord­ing to the Atlanta Jour­nal & Con­sti­tu­tion, the Vog­tle nuclear plant expan­sion in Geor­gia is three years behind sched­ule and $3 bil­lion over budget.

Util­i­ty com­pa­nies are also get­ting out of the nuclear game — since 2008, they have sus­pend­ed more new nuclear reac­tor license reviews than they’ve com­plet­ed, after wast­ing hun­dreds, if not thou­sands, of hours of nuclear reg­u­la­tors’ time and effort. In Vir­ginia, the attor­ney general’s office has called for Domin­ion Pow­er to aban­don its plans for a third reac­tor at the North Anna nuclear plant site, in order to avoid wast­ing bil­lions of dol­lars on this exces­sive­ly expen­sive source of pow­er. Expert tes­ti­mo­ny for the attor­ney general’s office shows that Domin­ion would spend over $19 bil­lion on the new reac­tor at the North Anna site near Fred­er­icks­burg, which would cause elec­tric rates in the state to rise by 25 percent.

With old nuclear reac­tors fac­ing stiff eco­nom­ic com­pe­ti­tion and new reac­tors unable to com­pete on cost, nuclear pow­er is expe­ri­enc­ing a de fac­to phase out. Almost a decade ago, Green­peace released a report show­ing that we can phase out nuclear pow­er while reduc­ing car­bon pol­lu­tion with afford­able, renew­able ener­gy. The report shows how we could phase out nuclear reac­tors at the end of their 40-year licensed life, scale up renew­able ener­gy and ener­gy effi­cien­cy to replace coal and nuclear pow­er, and reach near­ly 100 per­cent renew­able ener­gy by mid­cen­tu­ry. Since then, the cost of renew­able ener­gy has con­tin­ued to plum­met while the cost of new nuclear pow­er has reached unprece­dent­ed heights.

Phas­ing out old and eco­nom­i­cal­ly chal­lenged nuclear plants is the right thing to do, espe­cial­ly if we are to avoid a Fukushi­ma or a Cher­nobyl on U.S. soil. Replac­ing those retired reac­tors with safe and afford­able renew­able ener­gy will allow us to abate the most cat­a­stroph­ic con­se­quences of cli­mate change.

WILL: It’s hard­er to replace nuclear in the real world than it is in a Green­peace man­i­festo. Despite large sub­si­dies, over the last five years renew­able gen­er­a­tion in the Unit­ed States rose just 49 ter­awatt-hours. At that rate, fast to deploy” renew­ables will grow enough to replace the cur­rent 797 ter­awatt-hours of nuclear out­put in 81 years — with none of that increase dis­plac­ing fos­sil-fueled elec­tric­i­ty. That’s the math: Less nuclear equals more coal, more frack­ing, more glob­al warming.

Pro­gres­sives shouldn’t invoke mar­ket com­pe­ti­tion to defend biased poli­cies that squan­der low-car­bon capac­i­ty. Yes, a few nuclear plants in dereg­u­lat­ed elec­tric­i­ty mar­kets have been ham­mered by cheap gas-fired pow­er that depress­es prices. They need a sub­sidy of a pen­ny per kilo­watt-hour to stay afloat. It’s hard­ly more afford­able” to close them and build wind tur­bines, which get 2.3 cents per kilo­watt-hour in fed­er­al sub­si­dies (or a 30 per­cent sub­sidy of con­struc­tion costs) on top of state subsidies.

As for new nuclear plants, they are com­pet­i­tive glob­al­ly: last year’s crop of reac­tors added as much effec­tive capac­i­ty as the wind or solar sec­tors did, at one-third the cost. Some pro­posed Amer­i­can projects are too expen­sive, but most are finan­cial­ly pret­ty smart con­sid­er­ing their phe­nom­e­nal pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. Elec­tric­i­ty from the Vog­tle reac­tors will cost $65 bil­lion over 60 years; but spread over their colos­sal out­put of 1,056 ter­awatt-hours, that comes to a rea­son­able 6.2 cents per kilo­watt-hour. And Vogtle’s 247 pow­er won’t conk out when­ev­er the wind dies or the sun sets. Thanks to that reli­a­bil­i­ty, the five reac­tors under con­struc­tion in the Unit­ed States will gen­er­ate more elec­tric­i­ty each year than the entire Amer­i­can solar sec­tor did in 2015. If nuclear got the same sub­si­dies as renew­ables, more would get built.

Let’s sup­port sub­si­dies and man­dates for all clean ener­gy, renew­able and nuclear, until our ener­gy is clean.

JIM: We need fast, safe, afford­able cli­mate solu­tions — that rules out nuclear.

Run­ning old, dan­ger­ous and eco­nom­i­cal­ly chal­lenged nuclear reac­tors like Indi­an Point on a shoe­string bud­get tempts fate. Con­tin­u­ing to run reac­tors for 60 and 80 years, even if safe­ty goals are achieved, is like play­ing Russ­ian roulette with a nuclear reac­tor. How many times does the nuclear indus­try expect Amer­i­cans to pull the trig­ger? Phas­ing out reac­tors that have oper­at­ed for 40 years and replac­ing them with clean, safe and renew­able ener­gy makes sense and is the respon­si­ble thing to do.

U.S. ener­gy pol­i­cy need not be a choice between nuclear pow­er, coal or fracked gas, and all the risks each brings. Bloomberg New Ener­gy Finance (BNEF) pro­jec­tions show that renew­able ener­gy from wind and solar is expect­ed to increase 59 per­cent and 233 per­cent respec­tive­ly by the end of 2021. BNEF projects 103 GW of elec­tric­i­ty from new solar and wind projects in just the next five years. And 68 per­cent of all new elec­tric­i­ty added to the grid last year was from renew­able ener­gy. The ener­gy rev­o­lu­tion is under­way, and nuclear pow­er just can’t compete.

Edi­tor’s note: The intro­duc­tion of this piece has been cor­rect­ed to clar­i­fy that Bernie Sanders’ ener­gy pro­pos­al involves invest­ing in wind, solar and geothermal. 

Will Boisvert is an In These Times con­tribut­ing edi­tor. He writes on ener­gy, envi­ron­men­tal and urban pol­i­cy for The New York Observ­er, Dis­sent and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. Jim Ric­cio is a nuclear pol­i­cy ana­lyst at Green­peace USA.
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