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Reducing Carbon Emissions with Nuclear Power


Published October 29, 2019

As we move toward a low carbon, or even a zero-carbon future, it is a mistake to completely rule out nuclear power. Nuclear is the only carbon-free way to generate baseload power. And replacing nuclear plants without renewable power capacity in place means that carbon emissions rise. With the right combination of renewables and clean nuclear power, we can completely de-carbonize our country’s electricity generation.

Discussion Questions

  1. How is nuclear energy used?
  2. How does nuclear energy impact the environment?
  3. What are the advantages of using nuclear energy in the United States?

Additional Resources

  • Watch “The Role of Commercial Nuclear Energy in a National Energy Policy with James Ellis Jr.,” available here
  • Watch “Redefining Energy Security” by Admiral James O. Ellis Jr., available here
  • Read Admiral James O. Ellis Jr’s chapter “Redefining Energy Security” in Blueprint for America available here.
  • Read the “The Benefits Of Nuclear Power” by Admiral James O. Ellis Jr. , George P. Shultz, available here.
View Transcript

We’re in a rare period of American history: one of effective energy independence. 

As a result, we have the opportunity to thoughtfully decide what we want our long-term, low-carbon energy production to look like.

As we move toward a low carbon, or even a zero-carbon future it is a mistake to completely rule out nuclear power. 

Wind and solar can provide a lot of energy, but they need to be paired with enormous battery storage or other energy reservoirs in order to smooth out their variance in electricity production.

Unfortunately, long-term energy storage isn’t where we need it to be, and it won’t be there anytime soon. That means that what we do in the interim is of the utmost importance.

I have a long history with nuclear power, first as a nuclear engineer in the Navy and then as the head of the commercialnuclear industry’s self-regulatory body, the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, or INPO. 

When it comes to achieving reductions in carbon emissions, there are two things to know about nuclear power.

First, generating zero-carbon electricity in the future without including nuclear power will be not only difficult, but extremely costly.

That’s because there isn’t another form of reliable baseload power generation for America that is carbon free. 

By baseload power, we mean electricity generation that is always on. Nuclear power operates over ninety percent of the time. For solar, nation-wide data shows that it’s closer to twenty-five to thirty percent. That means solar plants totaling fifteen hundred megawatts of power capacity are akin to a nuclear powerplant whose capacity is five hundred megawatts of power. And remember that the solar-generated electricity must be replaced by other sources when it is not available.

Renewable energy production peaks during the middle of the day, but starts to come offline at the end of the day when peak energy production is often required.

The replacement energy has to come from one of two places: Other power sources like natural gas, which emit carbon, or batteries, which are expensive, only capable of storing energy for a short time period, and have a carbon footprint of their own.

And it’s even more of a problem in the winter months when solar and wind drop to their lowest level of production. 

Increasingly we need electricity storage capabilities that can last over months or seasons. That technological capability does not currently exist.

Second, when nuclear power plants are shut down prematurely for economic reasons, the power needed to replace them often comes from coal and natural gas instead of renewable resources. As a result, carbon emissions rise.

The obvious case study is Germany, which closed many nuclear power plants without an adequate supply of renewable energy and long-term storage to replace them.

Germany made a heroic effort to expand wind and solar power, but ultimately required additional coal and natural gas to fill most of the gap left behind by nuclear power. 

Carbon emissions rose for several years along with real electricity costs, and the German government has announced that it will miss its 2020 carbon emission targets.

Its next-door neighbor France, which generates over three-quarters of its electricity with nuclear power, generates lower levels of carbon per capita and has much lower electricity costs.

Back in the United States, many states have created renewable portfolio standards that mandate a portion of their electricity be generated by renewable energy. As a result, wind and solar production is increasing. 

But a much simpler and cost-effective way to encourage more zero-carbon energy would be instead to adopt “low carbonenergy portfolio standards” that allow nuclear power, like renewables, to be counted as a source of low carbon energy, which in fact, it is.

Repeated studies and scientific data clearly show that nuclear power is one of the safest sources of energy, and dealing with waste is a political problem, not a technological one. 

If we’re going to move to a low-carbon future in a way that makes fiscal and environmental sense, nuclear power needs to play a continuing, critical role. With the right combination of renewables and clean nuclear power, we can completely de-carbonize our country’s electricity generation. Now THAT’S a worthwhile and achievable goal!