The science is in: Nuclear is out

Every dollar wasted on nuclear is a dollar not invested in renewables

By Tim Judson and Luis Hestres

We’ve known for a long time that nuclear energy is a false solution to climate change. Not only are the health and environmental impacts of nuclear power intolerable, but it also gobbles up investments we should be making in clean and safe renewable energy.

Now, a new study by researchers at the University of Sussex in the UK brings us the latest and most robust evidence of these facts.

The study, published last week in Nature Energy, considers three hypotheses: Firstly, that emissions decline the more a country adopts nuclear power; secondly, that emissions decline the more a country adopts renewables; and thirdly, that nuclear and renewables are ‘mutually exclusive’ options that tend to crowd each other out at an energy system level. The hypotheses were tested against 25 years’ worth of electricity-production and emissions data from 123 countries.

The result? Investment in nuclear is mostly negatively correlated with decreases in carbon emissions, while investment in renewables was positively correlated with such decreases across the board. In other words, countries that invested in nuclear didn’t see emission reductions but countries that invested in renewables did. 

Investment in renewables was positively correlated with decreases in carbon emissions across the board. (Photo: “Wind Farm at Sunset” by chaunceydavis818?CC BY 2.0.jpg)

The only exceptions were higher per-capita GDP countries, which saw some decreases in emissions while investing in nuclear—but countries with lower per-capita GDP didn’t. But this last finding didn’t take into account the costs associated with nuclear waste storage and cleanup, the dangers of nuclear accidents, or the fact that those reductions might have been deeper if renewables had been chosen.

The finding that investments in nuclear and renewables tend to crowd each other out means that countries that invest more in nuclear tend to invest less in renewables, and vice versa. This refutes the ‘all of the above’ option, or what we call ‘refuse to choose’. Every dollar that a country wastes in nuclear is a dollar it doesn’t invest in renewable energy, which has a better chance of achieving deeper emission reductions at a lower cost and without the dangers associated with nuclear energy. To refuse to choose is to choose nuclear, to the detriment of the fight against climate change and the health and safety of people and the environment.

This study has major implications for climate and energy policy in the US and around the world. In June 2020, the USCAN Climate Action Network made a big splash by publishing the Vision for Equitable Climate Action. Not only is VECA the most comprehensive and detailed policy agenda put out by the climate movement, it is rooted in principles of racial and economic equity and justice, developed by more than 170 people from over 100 organizations. 

It is also the first major climate movement agenda to explicitly call for a phaseout of nuclear power. Along with other recent climate justice agendas, from the Equitable and Just National Climate Platform and the People’s Orientation to a Regenerative Economy to the THRIVE Agenda and the Feminist Green New Deal, VECA is part of a broad shift toward transformative solutions to the climate crisis, calling for a rapid, just and equitable transition to 100% renewable energy.

The climate movement needs to be rooted in principles of racial and economic equity and justice. (Photo: International Day of Action for Climate Justice march to Bank of America in San Francisco by Steve RhodesCC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Moderate climate organizations have reacted with hesitation and resistance, skeptical that transformative change is too risky, or not supported by the science. And nuclear power has been one of the central sticking points, with some insisting that it plays too big a role in our energy supply. 

But now the science is in, and it shows nuclear is out. And the Vision for Equitable Climate Action and the anti-nuclear and climate justice movements have it right. The Sussex study confirms what NIRS, Beyond Nuclear and others have been saying for a long time: on top of being too dirty and too dangerous, nuclear power is simply too expensive and too time-consuming to compete with renewables as an alternative to decarbonize the global economy. 

So, what about the Green New Deal? While opponents of the GND complain about its potential $2 trillion cost, this year has proven that’s just playing politics. With the $2.5 trillion COVID-19 relief bill Congress passed in April, it’s clear that, when the country truly knows we are facing a crisis and our elected officials are forced to deal with it, we can find the political will and the money to do what is needed. 

If we can find $2.5 trillion in a few weeks to bootstrap our economy and support people through the pandemic for a few months, the Green New Deal is a bargain. For $2 trillion over 10 years, we can not only literally save the world, but build a just, equitable, sustainable new economy with healthy communities, good, union jobs, and real economic security.

But at the same time, as with COVID, we don’t have time to waste on things that aren’t going to work, and nuclear power is now exhibit #1. It would be better to spend our money on creating thousands of jobs cleaning up and revitalizing the hundreds of communities impacted by nuclear power, and coming up with environmentally just and scientifically proven ways to isolate radioactive waste. 

When it comes to the climate crisis, we have to be bold, visionary, and ambitious, and we have to put equity and justice first. That alone is reason enough to make sure the Green New Deal prioritizes a phaseout of nuclear power through a just transition for workers and communities.

Tim Judson is the Executive Director of Nuclear Information and Resource Service. Luis Hestres, PhD., is the Digital Strategist at Nuclear Information and Resource Service.

Headline photo: Banner, ‘Don’t Nuke the Climate!’ in Copenhagen, by sortirdunucleaire/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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