Yes, nuclear energy is clean energy

There’s quite a bit of quibbling going on over several carbon-related bills in the Washington state legislature that dare to count nuclear energy as a clean, or carbon-free, electricity generating resource. In a world not tainted by ideology and entrenched environmentalism, this would not be an issue. Basic science tells us that nuclear energy generates no carbon in the fission process. But basic science never had to fundraise as these groups do.

One such bill took a sane approach to defining clean energy in its effort to further decarbonize an electricity mix that is already roughly 75 percent clean:

(3) “Carbon-free resource” includes: (a) A resource that emits no greenhouse gas pollution as part of its generation activity; or (b) a renewable resource.

That appears to be both logical and plain-spoken. The enemy is carbon. Reducing carbon is what the whole climate change/global warming thing is about.

Or should be.

But Washington state “environmental” groups have other agendas, including eliminating nuclear energy from the planet. The old saying is, when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. These anti-nuclear energy groups prefer to dig us deeper before we begin climbing back out. That adds time we don’t have and money we don’t have. So why pursue that path?

Denial of facts
The reason is obvious. These groups have a deep anti-nuclear energy strain running through them, one that runs deeper than the consequences of climate change. These same groups will tell us that not acting now on climate change will lead to rising oceans, forest fires, deadly droughts and more. But in the next breath they will say nuclear isn’t “clean” because it produces used nuclear fuel. There is no link between used nuclear fuel and rising oceans, forest fires, deadly droughts nor any human nor environmental calamity. None. And there never will be. That’s why it’s important for these groups to confuse the public and mention “Hanford” when talking about nuclear energy. The Hanford Site is a defense waste clean-up effort. (See our video series on the issue.)

Nuclear energy is carbon-free. Its lifecycle emissions, which include uranium mining and fuel processing, are on par with wind and better than hydro, solar and all the rest. Don’t take our word for it, that’s what the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded.

Comparison of Life-Cycle Emissions

The leading climate change scientists all have come to support nuclear energy because of its low-carbon lifecycle (and grid resilience).

President Obama supported nuclear as being part of a clean energy mix.

And currently, politicians from both sides of the aisle support nuclear energy because it is both reliable and carbon-free.


What is important is the ability to have as many carbon-free electricity resources at our disposal as we can. We need to maintain existing nuclear energy resources (currently 60 percent of America’s carbon-free electricity) while continuing to develop new nuclear technology that improves on reliability and makes already world-class safe nuclear even safer.

But what one heard at a recent senate hearing on SB 6253 is a denial of reality for ideological purposes. See for yourself:

Moderate, reasonable, environmental voices understand this. While they don’t wave the nuclear banner they aren’t willing to burn it, either. That’s important. It allows for discussion and to seek consensus based on reality and facts, not time-worn ideology. Nuclear energy is not the solution to every problem, but utilities need to be able to make the best decisions for their customers and the environment. They shouldn’t be hamstrung by ideology masquerading as environmental concern.

Decarbonizing is hard
The Northwest is blessed with abundant hydro resources which get us a long way in our effort to rid the electricity sector (and then the transportation sector) of carbon. But getting the rest of the way is, um, tricky. We have the water in the Northwest. The Midwest has the wind. The Southwest has the sun. It would be silly, as Stanford’s Mark Jacobson suggested, trying to power the Northwest with things it doesn’t have in abundance.

For instance, there are entire weeks here when the wind doesn’t blow. Seven days!


What’s the back-up plan? Unless there is a back-up plan that means burning a lot of fossil fuels. The thermal line in the graph above includes nuclear, but is mostly coal and natural gas with some biomass. Except for nuclear, the rest add carbon to the atmosphere.

Of course, there’s always a solution, and the word “easy” is often added by those who advocate for renewable everything. David Roberts at Vox put the lie to that in his latest piece:

“So if you take nuclear and CCS [carbon capture and storage] off the table, you’re cutting out a big chunk of dispatchable capacity. That means other dispatchable resources have to dramatically scale up to compensate — we’d need a lot of new transmission, a lot of new storage, a lot of demand management, and a lot of new hydro, biogas, geothermal, and whatever else we can think of…”

But it seems clear that the groups mentioned earlier don’t fully grasp what it takes to power communities and states. Sean O’Leary, who does communications for the Northwest Energy Coalition, asked on Twitter what need could be met by new nuclear energy that couldn’t be handled by new renewables at less cost. The simple answer we provided: capacity.

In this scenario from last summer (see graphic below) when the temperatures reached triple digits across the Northwest, one sees the wind disappearing. How do utilities make up for that loss? Through dispatchable resources that provide system capacity. For the Northwest, that means cranking up the hydro (if the water is available), and ramping up the fossils. This situation is helped by having 1,200 megawatts of carbon-free nuclear working for the grid around the clock.

Heat Wave

When the wind comes back up, the fossils are reduced. California deals with this every day as part of the “duck curve,” with late afternoon solar giving way to natural gas and other dispatchable forms of generation.

Sensible approaches
The recent study by San Francisco-based Energy and Environmental Economics (E3) found that relying on renewables alone won’t get us to the deep decarbonization the state is looking for. But an approach that values all low-carbon resources, while including some natural gas, is the lowest cost path.

The E3 study found the most cost-effective strategy is one that involves eliminating all coal generation (coal accounts for 80 percent of electricity sector emissions for Washington and Oregon) and replacing it with a combination of energy efficiency, renewables (about 11,000 megawatts) and natural gas generation (about 7,000 megawatts). (Note: These numbers are for the Pacific Northwest region, not just Washington state). This scenario uses market-based policies to achieve 21 million metric tons of emission reductions, an 80 percent reduction below 1990 levels. The cost?  About $1 billion per year, or 6 percent more than a base scenario which does not include any new policy initiatives.

Compare that to the 50 percent renewable portfolio standard scenario which would cost more than twice as much, $2.1 billion per year, but yield only about half the carbon reduction results, just 11 million metric tons of emissions reductions. The study shows that new wind and solar tend to reduce gas generation instead of coal, and more than 60 percent of the renewable energy is either exported or curtailed.  As states such as California race to increase their RPS mandates, the study’s results are a reason to pause and re-evaluate the path forward.

Prohibiting the construction of new natural gas plants is even less effective.  This scenario adds $1.2 billion per year of costs, but carbon emissions are largely unchanged because older, less efficient gas plants simply run more. Some amount of new gas generation is needed to ensure that power is available when we need it most, and can be accommodated without increasing overall emissions.

Equally important to sound carbon reduction policy is maintaining existing zero-carbon generation resources. The study found these resources, such as the Columbia Generating Station nuclear energy facility and large hydro dams, provide significant benefits under a carbon cap scenario. Replacing only 2,000 MW of these resources with carbon-free electricity would require 5,500 MW of renewable energy capacity along with “2,000 MW of new natural gas capacity to meet peak load needs,” the study said, at an additional cost of $1.6 billion per year.

Going forward we need sensible approaches to reducing carbon in the electricity sector. It would be a shame to have that effort derailed by groups beholden to old ideologies and special interests. If they succeed in their efforts to deny basic science and reality, we all lose. We don’t have to. We can build a better clean energy future working together. We’re ready.

(Posted by John Dobken)