Race to cut carbon emissions divides US states on whether to use nuclear energy

As climate change pushes US states to drastically reduce their use of fossil fuels, many are coming to the conclusion that solar, wind and other renewable energy sources might not be enough to keep the lights on.

Nuclear power is emerging as an answer to fill the void as states move away from coal, oil and natural gas to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and avoid the worst effects of global warming. The renewed interest in nuclear comes as companies, including one started by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, are developing smaller, cheaper reactors that could supplement the power grid in communities across the United States.

Nuclear energy comes with its own set of potential problems, particularly radioactive waste which can remain dangerous for thousands of years. But proponents say the risks can be minimized and the power source will be key to stabilizing electricity supplies as the world tries to move away from carbon dioxide-emitting fossil fuels.

Tennessee Valley Authority President and CEO Jeff Lyash puts it simply: You can’t significantly reduce carbon emissions without nuclear power.

“At this point, I don’t see a path that would get us there without preserving the existing fleet and building a new nuclear power plant,” Lyash said.

The federally owned utility is adding solar capacity, but also operates three nuclear power plants and plans to test a small reactor. By 2050, it hopes to become net zero, meaning the amount of greenhouse gases produced does not exceed the amount removed from the atmosphere.

An Associated Press survey of energy policies in all 50 states and the District of Columbia found that a strong majority – about two-thirds – say nuclear power, one way or another, will help replace fossil fuels. This momentum could lead to the first expansion of nuclear reactor construction in the United States in more than three decades.

About a third of states and the District of Columbia say they have no plans to incorporate nuclear power into their green energy goals, instead relying heavily on renewables. They highlighted advances in energy storage using batteries, grid investments for high-voltage interstate transmission, energy efficiency efforts to reduce demand, and energy provided by hydroelectric dams. .

The split over nuclear power mirrors a similar debate unfolding in Europe.

The Biden administration has tried to take aggressive action to reduce greenhouse gases in the United States. The $1 trillion infrastructure package adopted last year will allocate about $2.5 billion to advanced reactor demonstration projects.

US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm told the AP that the administration wants to achieve carbon-free electricity, and that means nuclear, hydroelectric, geothermal, wind and solar.

“We want it all,” she said.

Solar farms are essential for the future of green energy, but they pose a problem: how to build solar farms without further harming the environment. But fourteen miles of sustainable highway in western Georgia proves that roadside solar power on the interstate system makes good environmental and financial sense. NBCLX storyteller Chase Cain reports from Georgia.

Nuclear technology still carries significant risks that other low-carbon energy sources do not have, said Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear energy safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He fears the industry is cutting corners on safety and security to save money and stay competitive. The group does not oppose the use of nuclear energy but wants to ensure that it is safe.

The United States also lacks a long-term plan to manage or dispose of hazardous waste, and there remains the danger of accidents or targeted attacks, Lyman said. The nuclear disasters at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, Chernobyl and, most recently, Fukushima, Japan in 2011 are a lasting warning.

Nuclear energy already provides about 20% of electricity in the United States, or about half of the country’s carbon-free energy.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved only one of the new small modular reactor designs – from NuScale Power in 2020. Gates’ company, TerraPower, wants to build an advanced reactor in Wyoming, which has long relied on coal for power. electricity and jobs.

As Utilities Ditch Coal, Wyoming Harnesses Wind. But Glen Murrell, executive director of the Wyoming Energy Authority, said it was unrealistic to expect all of the country’s energy to be supplied exclusively by wind and solar.

Georgia says its nuclear reactor expansion will provide “sufficient clean energy” for 60 to 80 years. New Hampshire said the region’s environmental goals would be unattainable affordably without nuclear. Energy agencies in Alaska and Maryland are planning small modular nuclear reactors.

Many Texans are still reeling from the effects of the coldest winter on record in 30 years, but winter is coming. And energy experts say the state’s power grid is still vulnerable to another outage, despite new regulations. Those experts say the work done on the Texas grid this year was the “bare minimum,” said Mitchell Ferman, energy and economics reporter for the Texas Tribune.

Other officials, mostly in Democratic-led states, said they were moving beyond nuclear power. Some said they never relied on it much to begin with and didn’t see the need for it.

They said the cost of new reactors compared to installing wind turbines or solar panels, security concerns and the unresolved question of how to store hazardous nuclear waste are decisive factors. Some environmentalists oppose small modular reactors for similar reasons.

New York’s future energy grid will be dominated by wind, solar and hydro, said Doreen Harris, president and CEO of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.

Nevada officials do not see nuclear power as a viable option due to the failure of the country’s plan to store commercially spent nuclear fuel at Yucca Mountain. Instead, they see the potential of energy storage and geothermal energy.

“Focusing on short-term gains cannot alleviate the long-term problems of nuclear power,” David Bobzien, director of the Nevada governor’s office of energy, said in a statement.

California is set to shut down its last nuclear power plant, Diablo Canyon, in 2025 as it shifts to cheaper renewables to power its grid by 2045. Officials plan to keep power generation expanding clean at a record pace. California also imports electricity from other states.

Skeptics questioned whether the plan could work in a state of nearly 40 million people. Jason Bordoff, co-founding dean of the Columbia Climate School, said there were “good reasons” to consider extending the life of Diablo Canyon to reduce energy costs and rapidly reduce emissions.

Nuclear power is not without risk, he said, “but the risks of not meeting our climate goals outweigh the risks of including nuclear power in the zero-carbon energy mix.”

Associated Press writer Matthew Daly in Washington, DC, contributed to this report.

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