Nuclear power is no silver bullet to wean us from fossil fuels

From home energy retrofits and rooftop solar to wind energy and battery storage, we have more and better ways than ever before to transform our energy systems away from fossil fuels.

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This June 2, 2016 file photo shows Exelon Corporation’s Clinton Power Station through a tangle of high-voltage power lines in Clinton, Ill.

This June 2, 2016 file photo shows Exelon Corporation’s Clinton Power Station through a tangle of high-voltage power lines in Clinton, Illinois.

AP Photos

A growing chorus in Washington equates weaning our country off energy from killer fossil fuels to relying more heavily on new nuclear power plants. The same debates are happening in state capitals from Richmond to Raleigh, Springfield to Sacramento.

This chorus distracts from the real work ahead of ensuring clean, renewable, affordable energy for every community.

The risk of nuclear energy is an easy dividing line. To opponents, names like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima are all the evidence we need that a catastrophic event is unavoidable and unacceptable. For supporters, those events are a sign that disasters are few. Both are right: They happen infrequently, and when they do occur, they are cataclysmic.

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The more compelling reasons we should drop the silver bullet thinking about nuclear power are its cost and its reliability.

Since the mid-20th century when nuclear power entered the public imagination, the belief has been that energy is “free” — start the chain reaction, make electricity. But it’s not free, and it never has been; uranium must be mined, and reactor fuel is consumable. We’ve reached a point where renewable sources like wind and solar power are cheaper, in part because they are quicker to come online.

Nuclear power: more costly, vulnerable to climate change

Lazard, a global investment bank and financial consultancy that reports annually on the “levelized cost of energy” from various sources, found that nuclear power is two to six times more costly per megawatt hour than wind and solar, which now cost the same per megawatt hour. The capital cost of large-scale solar and wind is at least eight times lower.

The time to get new wind and solar into the electricity grid is at least half the time for a new nuclear plant; history shows anyone who estimates the completion date for a new nuclear plant is wrong.

Unlike most industries that rely heavily on science and technology, the cost of building nuclear plants is rising over time. In Silicon Valley, they call it a reverse learning curve.

Supporters of nuclear power like to argue that nuclear plants are required for reliability, and that they can operate all the time.

This ignores nuclear’s vulnerability to climate change: severe weather, extreme temperatures, and both floods and droughts have forced nuclear plants to shut down unexpectedly in recent years.

Additionally, a reactor goes offline for routine maintenance at least every two years, which means a plant must have more total capacity to cover that maintenance routine.

By comparison, wind and solar farms have much fewer operational problems. And battery backups have gotten faster than the gas power generation that nuclear plants often turn to meet peak demand.

It’s time to confront nuclear’s challenges — uranium mining, accident risk, cost and climate vulnerability — and double down on the solutions we know will be central to our shift away from fossil fuels.

We can’t afford the distraction of a fiction around nuclear power when burning fossil fuels threatens the health of millions around the world annually. Our focus must be on bringing the clean air, cost savings and economic benefits of clean energy to communities across the country as quickly as we can.

From home energy retrofits and rooftop solar to wind energy and battery storage, we have more and better ways than ever before to transform our energy systems from fossil fuels to energy that’s actually clean, reliable and renewable.

Ben Jealous is executive director of the Sierra Club and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

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