Nuclear energy tends to get a bad rap in modern politics. Past accidents such as Chernobyl and Fukushima have scarred the minds of those who were alive to witness the catastrophes and have made it difficult for even newer generations to trust nuclear capabilities. Much of the fear surrounding nuclear energy stems from misinformation and superstition about the risks working with radiation and reactors can bring.
The truth is that nuclear energy producers in America and around the world are held to immense safety standards to ensure that even the small amount of radioactive substances used in production do not harm workers or civilians. Nuclear has also proven to be one of the most effective sources of green energy, with power plants able to run constantly and produce enough energy to provide baseload power to a significant region on its own.
Despite all of this, the debate over whether nuclear is the future of low-carbon energy rages on across the globe. In Germany, environmentalists cheered as the government closed the country’s last three operating nuclear power plants in April. The closures had been the cornerstone of the German Green Party’s platform, which holds power in the current government’s administration. German opponents of nuclear energy cited the Chernobyl and Fukushima meltdowns as evidence of the method’s instability, as well as concerns that nuclear energy was distracting the nation from other renewable sources such as wind or solar. Supporters of the nuclear power plants shot back with claims that coal and natural gas will have to be supplemented to make up for the energy that the plants were producing.
Several other European countries such as Denmark, Switzerland, and Italy had already done away with nuclear energy long before Germany opted to shut down its power plants. However, anti-nuclear sentiments have materialized in many states across the United States as well. This comes as the Biden administration has included nuclear energy as a key pillar to try and achieve a completely renewable electric grid by 2035 and a net-zero economy by 2050. Under Biden, the Department of Energy recently announced $26 million in funding so that groups and organizations across the country can undertake research and outreach to try to find prime locations for interim storage sites that will hold spent nuclear waste.
Storing and disposing of nuclear waste has been at the crux of the fight between pro-nuclear agencies and wary local governments. Most recently, New Mexico and Texas have been suing the federal government for allowing the nuclear energy corporation Holtec International to begin establishing temporary waste storage facilities in each respective state. While Texas has been so far unsuccessful in blocking the facilities’ licensure, New Mexico has taken steps to make simply obtaining a federal license by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission not enough. New Mexico’s State Legislature recently passed and signed a law that requires the state’s consent before the New Mexico Environment Department can issue site permits to companies like Holtec. This means that despite NRC granting Holtec’s New Mexico planned repository a license, they will not be able to continue with construction unless granted permission by the New Mexico government.
Without the repository, Holtec will be forced to continue storing the spent nuclear waste on-site at the power plants that produced them – a safe practice that has been the norm for years in the U.S. With one plant having the capability to produce 2,000 tons of waste a year, things can pile up fast. Not all nuclear waste is created equal and only a proportion is highly radioactive. The lack of storage space has also forced the federal government to reimburse companies like Holtec for storing the waste on-site, costing the government billions of dollars.
Supporters of the New Mexico bill say the plan needs to be vetted further and that New Mexico won’t be the federal government’s go-to waste deposit site. “We won’t be burdened by going it alone unequivocally,” said New Mexico’s Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham. Many Democratic state legislators echoed the Governor’s words, adding that states need to figure out what to do with waste produced on their land and that the federal government should provide incentives for housing the radioactive waste. The calls from the state legislature however don’t match up with local officials who represent the proposed site who say the region needs the jobs and is equipped to handle the responsibilities.
A similar fight is raging across the country in New York, where a decommissioned nuclear power plant is attempting to dump radioactive wastewater into the Hudson River. The water contains trace amounts of radioactive tritium at amounts far below federal standards for what would be considered hazardous. The plant had disposed of wastewater in this manner several times when it was still operating, but now state and local environmentalists are attempting to block another release. Similar to New Mexico, a bill that would ban the release of radioactive discharge into the Hudson has passed the legislature and is now heading toward the governor’s desk. Opponents of the bill say that the move would slash decommissioning jobs and make it much harder to properly dispose of the tritium water.
There have been some strides in America’s nuclear progression. In Georgia, the state recently unveiled its third nuclear reactor with a fourth planned to open in 2024. The new reactor is the first to be built from scratch on American soil in decades and has the capacity to power around 500,000 homes and businesses. The new reactor capacities have not convinced all nay-sayers though, mainly due to the trouble it took to get the reactor open.
The plan took seven years longer than originally intended and has been $17 billion over budget, issues that highlight the continued struggles nuclear technology faces – although oftentimes these cost overruns and construction delays result from oppositional lawsuits, environmental regulations, and shifting building and design standards during the course of the project. In this way, many of the pitfalls of nuclear and points raised by opponents are actually inflicted by them, not innate features of nuclear power or safe power plant construction.
Despite the pushback, mainly from members of his own party, President Biden is continuing with his mission to expand and innovate nuclear power throughout the country. As of now, the skepticism for nuclear energy among the public and politicians hasn’t reached German levels. In fact, a recent Gallup poll shows that 55 percent of Americans support nuclear energy, the highest support has been in a decade. America also isn’t alone in its mission to expand the country’s nuclear capabilities. France’s parliament recently approved the spending of $56 billion to build six new reactors.
If the Biden administration and more state governments are able to continue growing and advocating for safe nuclear energy throughout the country, we could see the share of American support for nuclear energy rise. The advent of small modular reactors in the next decade will majorly impact this debate – possibly adding clarity to American’s sentiment and finality to the question of how much nuclear energy should serve as a basis for the national energy grid.
Written by Jake Smith, Public Policy Intern
The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.