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Time to Exit the Nuclear Spin Cycle

It feels like an old Peanuts comic strip. Lucy holds the football for a field goal attempt, and entices Charlie Brown to kick it. But Lucy pulls the ball back at the last second, and the hapless Charlie Brown kicks wildly at nothing and crashes to the ground, time after time. In this metaphor, the football is the mirage of economical nuclear power, promised over and over by the industry. Credulous politicians believe the latest promise (or act as if they do, to keep those campaign contributions flowing), and taxpayers and ratepayers take the fall again. 

In Georgia, catastrophic cost overruns and delays for the Vogtle nuclear plants mount every year. Meanwhile, the only things the Vogtle reactors have produced are higher costs for Georgia ratepayers and higher deficits for American taxpayers. Georgia editorialists are comparing the results to the plot of the movie Groundhog Day.

The nuclear lobby’s latest mirage is the small modular reactor (SMR), which is being touted in Congress and the states as the way to make commercial nuclear power safe and affordable. In reality, SMR technology is no more economically viable today than it was when they were first built nearly 70 years ago, and for the same reasons. They can’t be manufactured quickly, or in sufficient numbers to be inexpensive. They present the same siting and decommissioning challenges and costs as full-scale nuclear reactors, while producing less power. Regardless, the nuclear industry keeps touting SMRs for the benefit of its investors. Their claims are eagerly embraced by politicians whose base demands they deny climate change and renewable energy’s vast potential to control it.

Meanwhile, evidence is growing that it is already economically feasible to meet nearly 100% of energy needs through renewable sources and efficiency improvements. “Technically and economically, we have 95 percent of the technologies we need to transition everything today,” said Mark Jacobson, lead author of a new study, and professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University. Renewable energy technologies including wind, water, and solar already account for about one-fifth of the nation’s electricity generation.

The Stanford study (PDF) confirmed not only that the switch to renewables is feasible, but that it would reduce total energy needs by increasing efficiency, reduce energy costs to consumers, improve public health, and create millions of new jobs. In North Carolina specifically, the report found this transition would cut electricity costs by more than half, and produce a net gain of over 200,000 jobs.

The evidence is in, and the verdict is clear. It’s past time to move on from the perpetual nuclear spin cycle in American energy policy and politics, and get on with the business of installing clean, affordable, renewable energy.

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