To his credit, Sullivan’s case for nuclear power includes long lists of its drawbacks. New nuclear plants are very expensive to build. Nuclear accidents, while extremely rare, are extremely expensive to remediate (if they can be remediated at all). But because the well-being of humanity is in jeopardy, these cons should bow to the pros, Sullivan says. After all, he asserts, nuclear power “can potentially meet all our energy demands.”
Isn’t it nice to think so? Sullivan’s sincere concern for the issue is welcome, and he is right to compliment the no-half-measures aspiration of the Green New Deal. He is also correct to argue that a nuclear build-out could lower the United States’ carbon emissions. But, alas, nuclear power is not a full answer—or even half an answer—to climate change. It simply cannot meet all of the U.S.’s energy demands. And by casting a nuclear build-out as a kind of moderate climate counteroffer, he reveals a misunderstanding about the Green New Deal itself—and what makes it notable.
Let there be no mistake: Nuclear power plants can generate enormous amounts of carbon-free electricity. A rapid increase in nuclear energy would slash emissions from the power sector, as the French example makes clear. Even today, France’s carbon density—its carbon emissions per capita—ranks well below that of Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States, according to the Global Carbon Atlas.
But you can’t put a nuclear reactor in a tractor-trailer or a steel plant. Nuclear can only reduce emissions from the power sector, and “the energy system is bigger than just electricity,” says Sam Ori, the executive director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago. “While I think nuclear has real potential as a means to decarbonizing electricity, you still have a lot of sectors to worry about.”
In fact, electricity makes up a smaller and smaller part of the climate problem. Right now, the power sector contributes only about a third of annual U.S. carbon emissions related to energy production. When you factor in land change and agriculture (read: deforestation and all those pesky cows), electricity is responsible for only about a quarter of annual U.S. emissions. And its share is declining. Carbon emissions from the U.S. power sector have fallen 28 percent since 2005. Meanwhile, emissions from other parts of the economy—transportation, agriculture, industry—have fallen by only 5 percent.
“Even if you figure out electricity, you still have to figure out industry. You still have to figure out transportation,” Ori told me. Although we have partial answers to some of the problems posed by those sectors—everyone could buy electric cars, for instance, and charge them off the new nuclear-powered grid—we don’t have total ones. We still have no electrified way of moving around freight. Electrified air travel remains notional. All the nuclear plants in the world could not reduce the importance of oil in steel production. Solving all these problems will require some kind of public policy, Ori said; even electric cars won’t replace their gas-powered brethren without a regulatory nudge. Sullivan’s nuclear build-out has nothing to say about such challenges.