Did the West Miss on Nuclear?


Since the '90s, nuclear power in the US has been on the decline, but it still provides just over half of American electricity that doesn't come from fossil fuels (ie zero emissions energy). It's a trend that could put climate goals at risk: In The Atlantic, David Frum examines Germany's nuclear phaseout as a cautionary tale. The country, which has been shutting down its nuclear reactors following the 2011 Fukushima disaster, has partially replaced that fuel source with fossil fuels, not just renewables. Coal provides nearly a third of German energy, ranking it ninth in global consumption in 2020. Although renewables, especially wind, have been the top producer of electricity in Germany in the past, coal overtook the turbines in the first half of this year.

US Department of Energy: 5 Fast Facts about Nuclear Energy, April 14, 2021.

Vox: Why nuclear plants are shutting down, October 21, 2021.

Why This Matters

With countries working toward net zero emissions by mid-century, nuclear energy is hard to ignore as a carbon-free source of energy. If and how countries choose to keep -- or build -- nuclear energy as part of their energy mix could make the difference between hitting those targets and missing them. It can also determine the market signal for next generation nuclear, which can look completely different from the images of Three Mile Island and the massive nuclear facilities of the past. For countries like Germany and the US that are closing plants, as Frum put it succinctly for The Atlantic, "In the near term, less nuclear means more gas." Even if closed nuclear reactors are replaced by renewables, that's still a swap from clean energy for clean energy, instead of replacing fossil fuels.

Making Energy from Nuclear Waste?

With the risk of a Fukushima or Chernobyl-style disaster aside, what to do with spent nuclear fuel is one of the primary arguments against nuclear energy. But as Alan Ahn, a Senior Resident Fellow for Third Way's Climate and Energy Program, wrote for World War Zero, spent nuclear fuel from nuclear plants actually has significant energy potential and could switch it from undesirable byproduct to useful clean energy source. As Ahn wrote:

The energy contained within spent fuel can be unleashed through recycling the material and using it in advanced fast-neutron reactors. Not only can fast reactors extract more energy from uranium resources, they can also reduce the volume, heat, and radiotoxicity of products for final disposal.

It's something that the federal government is exploring with a new Department of Energy-sponsored program called "Optimizing Nuclear Waste and Advanced Reactor Disposal Systems" (ONWARDS) and could become part of how the US thinks about its future energy.

US DOE: 5 Fast Facts about Spent Nuclear Fuel, Mar 30, 2020.

CNET: Small nuclear reactors could be the future of energy, October 20, 2021.