By Andrew Cline, Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy
If San Francisco tech bro hipsters invented a carbon-free way to generate power 24/7, they would be hailed as saviors of the planet. Though they might yet come up with some use for a venti Matcha Green Tea Frappuccino, the energy technology in question predates them and even their retro clothes. In 1951 in Idaho, scientists for the first time used a nuclear reaction to generate electricity.
Though 59 nuclear power plants generate about 55 percent of the non-carbon-emitting power in the United States, they are still opposed by environmental activists who came of age in the 1970s.
Some of those greens are celebrating 50 years of activism in New Hampshire this month. As they celebrate, there are signs that younger Democratic politicians and activists, fearing climate change more than nuclear meltdowns, are ignoring them and embracing the promise of carbon-free nuclear power.
This spring, the Pilgrim nuclear plant in Plymouth, Mass., closed. It followed the retirement in 2014 of Vermont Yankee. The closings leave only two nuclear plants in New England: Seabrook Station in Portsmouth and Millstone in Connecticut.
These closures have left New England more reliant on carbon-emitting fossil fuels.
When Pilgrim closed, ISO New England, the region’s power grid operator, concluded that three new plants that burn natural gas or oil would more than make up for Pilgrim’s 680 megawatts.
Vermont Yankee’s closure increased carbon emissions in New England as the 604 mw of nuclear power was replaced with natural gas, ISO New England confirmed.
As the Springfield Republican reported at the time, “while replacing coal with a natural gas plant reduces carbon emissions, replacing a nuclear plant with natural gas-fired generation has the opposite effect.”
That’s why some politicians and activists on the left are questioning the wisdom of anti-nuke extremism.
Seabrook Station offers a cautionary tale.
Scheduled to open in 1974, New Hampshire’s only nuclear power plant did not come online until 1990. In those 26 years, carbon-free power was replaced with carbon-emitting power.
A planned second reactor at the site was scrapped after lengthy legal battles. The additional 1,150 mw of power that would have been generated by a second reactor were instead generated by fossil-fuel-burning plants.
Coal-burning Merrimack Station and oil/gas-burning Newington have a joint capacity of 918 mw. Had the second reactor been finished, they might have been made redundant.
In fact, instead of opening a nuclear plant in 1974, PSNH opened its oil-burning plant at Newington. The announcement of plans to build this plant came in 1969, shortly after activists formed the Seacoast Anti-Pollution League to fight the nuclear plant, according to Peter Evans Randall’s history of Hampton.
To get an idea of how the anti-Seabrook movement led to unintended consequences, one need only look at NextEra Energy’s license renewal application for Seabrook. It estimated that replacing the nuclear plant with coal would create 9.5 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year and replacing it with natural gas would create 3.5 million tons. Those estimates were based on modern technologies, not the higher-emitting ones under which Merrimack Station and Newington operated for the 26 years before Seabrook opened.
Environmental activists still claim the 26-year delay and the killing of the second reactor as wins for the environment. The ironically named Seacoast Anti-Pollution League, formed in 1969 to oppose Seabrook Station’s construction, is holding a 50th anniversary celebration next week.
But this week’s CNN climate town hall showed that some Democratic politicians are not buying the anti-nuke nostalgia.
Some presidential candidates, like Elizabeth Warren, remain steeped in the ‘70s.
“The problem is it’s got a lot of risks associated with it, particularly the risks associated with the spent fuel rods,” she said on Wednesday. “In my administration we are not going to build any new nuclear power plants.”
Fears such as Warren’s are misguided, author Ben Rhodes documented for the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies last year.
Other candidates seem to have been swayed by more recent research such as Rhodes’. The Washington Post identified five remaining Democratic presidential candidates as open to nuclear power development. At the CNN town hall, Andrew Yang and Cory Booker embraced the promise of new nuclear technology.
“Right now nuclear is more than 50 percent of our non-carbon causing energy,” Booker said, accurately. “So people who think that we can get there without nuclear being part of the blend just aren’t looking at the facts.”
“We can actually go to the kind of innovations that make nuclear safer or safe,” he said.
That one word — “innovation” — marks the change in mindset.
For generations, environmental activism has been guided by a fixation on government control. Protesters believed that the only path to Eden led backwards into the past, formed by state suppression of disfavored technologies.
New nuclear technology is showing the old greens to be wrong. MIT Technology Review reported in February that nuclear power is critical for reducing global carbon emissions, a fact being recognized even by some environmental groups:
“If the current situation continues, more nuclear power plants will likely close and be replaced primarily by natural gas, causing emissions to rise,” argued the Union of Concerned Scientists—historically nuclear skeptics—in 2018. If all those plants shut down, estimates suggest, carbon emissions would increase by 6%.
At this point, the critical debate is not whether to support existing systems, says Edwin Lyman, acting director of the UCS’s nuclear safety project. “A more practical question is whether it is realistic that new nuclear plants can be deployed over the next several decades at the pace needed.”
The recognition that the path to Eden will be cleared by innovators, not regulators, is a huge insight. It hasn’t permeated the presidential field — or even Sen. Booker’s own environmental plan — yet. But the fact that some candidates and environmental organizations are embracing it at the risk of angering Prius-driving, Pete Seeger-listening Baby Boomers is encouraging.