OPINION: Nuclear energy could make climate change action attainable

Photo Courtesy of Stefan Kühn

For the past few months, pundits have been scrambling to determine which politicians will throw their support behind the Green New Deal, a set of proposed economic stimulus programs that combat climate change and economic inequality.

While anyone disregarding the scientific evidence behind climate change lives in absolute denial, the obsession over this bill in its current form is misguided.

The Green New Deal calls for the United States to totally eliminate its carbon footprint by 2030. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), on of its foremost proponents, is advocating a complete transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy by that time. Yet, both of those proposals leave out the one source of energy that could actually help the United States undertake this mission — nuclear energy.

Developed in the 1950s, nuclear power uses heat from the splitting of atoms to heat water and produce steam. That steam spins turbines that then produce electricity.

The Green New Deal proposals would fundamentally transform the American economy, but they won’t get through Congress with the support of just a few senators and representatives.

Regardless of how frustrated the opposition makes lawmakers, Green New Deal advocates need to compromise if they want any action taken on climate change.

Nuclear energy offers that compromise.

A few well-known incidents managed to turn public opinion against nuclear energy and largely prevented the United States from developing new power plants and new technology in the last several decades.

Yes, safety flaws at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in what was then the Soviet Union in 1986 infamously killed two people initially and several more through cancer.

But, 10 years earlier, a partial reactor meltdown at a Pennsylvania nuclear power plant left no one dead, and no link has been found between increased cancer and the malfunctioning reactor.

And despite the endless media coverage on the more recent Fukushima disaster following the 2011 tsunami in Japan, only one person, a plant worker on the site, died from exposure to radiation.

In addition to remembering the infamous disasters, many make the bogus connection between nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants. Yet nuclear power plants provide us with the safest form of reliable energy.

When deaths are evaluated by kilowatt hours of energy produced in each industry, nuclear energy is safer than all other forms of energy production, including solar and wind energy.

If we ignore nuclear power, as some activists suggest, we risk reverting back to a dependence on carbon-emitting fossil fuels because we do not yet have sufficient technology in renewables.

Connecticut is a clear example.

Ninety-six percent of the state’s carbon-free energy came from nuclear power, and in the wake of their plant’s closure, climate scientists warned that “natural gas [usage] … could increase sharply from 49 percent to 89 percent.”

These plants only risk shutting down because the state and federal governments prefer to give clean energy subsidies to renewable sources, who received 55 times the amount that nuclear energy received.

Certain activists claim that we have the technology in renewables to now make the successful transition, but Vermont serves as an example of that not being the case. Despite being ranked within the top five states for “aggressive action on energy efficiency,” Vermont’s emissions rose more than 16 percent between 2012 and 2014, which was twice as high as the nation’s rise in that period.

This “aggressive action” was just woefully misfocused. Despite clear evidence at the time that closing their last nuclear power plant would result in more carbon emission, activists held firm, and the plant closed in 2012.

We are now seeing the same action play out on the national stage.

The Green New Deal ignores nuclear energy and instead focuses on renewable technology. But if we have any hope of reducing carbon emission in the short term, we need nuclear energy to make that transition feasible and realistic.

Regardless of how much we may chide politicians who remain idle in the climate change debate, we will need their support to achieve any meaningful reform.

Nuclear energy has that support in Pennsylvania, where Republican legislators have introduced plans to boost the nuclear energy industry.

We must look to what offers us the best chance at meeting the 2030 deadline for irreversible climate change and recognize that nuclear energy provides the United States with a safe, politically viable and effective path to meet that goal.

Christopher Murdy PO ’22 is an intended international relations major from Lido Beach, New York. He came to California to avoid rain, but it’s followed him here.

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