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A Green Nuclear Deal?
By Jack DeVine

Let’s hear it, faint applause at least, for the Democrats’ Green New Deal!

Although the Green New Deal (GND) masquerades as a planet-saving call to arms, it is in fact a delusional plan to combat climate change — principally by abandoning roughly 80% of the nation’s current energy supplies in favor of inefficient part-time ones — along with a hodgepodge of other progressive goodies. It’s been panned on both sides, for good reason.

But setting aside the inconvenient details, we can give the GND its due as bold, outside the box thinking. Democrats defend it as a conversation starter, and there’s merit to that. Most of the conversations it has started have been loony. But one, perhaps unintended, is long overdue: shouldn’t nuclear power be part of any program to achieve long-term, economical and more planet-friendly electricity production?

The underlying principle of the Green New Deal is that we must dramatically reduce our energy sector’s carbon footprint. To achieve that, it proposes to eliminate all US fossil and nuclear electricity generation within ten years and rely exclusively on renewables from that point on.

Even for those who endorse the GND’s climate-saving premise, its no-nukes criterion makes no sense. True enough, solar and wind-powered generators do not emit greenhouse gases. But they work only when the sun shines and the wind blows. We need electrical power 24/7, in massive quantities. Nuclear plants are also non-emitting and they deliver safe reliable power in huge chunks, around the clock.

Nuclear power currently generates about 19% of the nation’s electricity. Eliminating it from the mix would make achievement of the GND’s primary objectives that much harder. On the other hand, significantly expanding our nuclear energy supply, in parallel with increasing our reliance on renewables, would be a far more viable and environmentally- positive approach.

But here's the rub. The US nuclear train left the station a long time ago. It will be expensive and time consuming to pull it back.

Forty years ago, the US nuclear industry was a booming business with a bright future. We were the world leaders in nuclear engineering and construction; we built over 100 large nuclear plants nation-wide (on average, each equivalent to 500 modern, high capacity wind generators), most of them coming on line in the 1970’s and 80’s.

But then we stopped. Economics (huge quantities of alternative low cost natural gas) and concerns about nuclear safety and waste disposal (facilitated by organized political opposition to nuclear) turned the tide. No new plants have been built and existing ones are growing old together, many nearing or past their planned end of life.

Today, much of our US-originated nuclear manufacturing capability has moved offshore. And while there are promising new nuclear plant designs available, our once robust US nuclear construction capability is a shadow of its former self.

With a half-century of commercial nuclear operation under our belts, nuclear power technology is mature and proven. Safety performance is excellent and nuclear waste is demonstrably manageable. But a new nuclear plant costs billions of dollars and can take as many as ten years to build. To energy investors with billions to spend, new nuclear poses significantly higher financial risk than fossil-fueled, greenhouse gas emitting alternatives.

In 2013, electric utilities in South Carolina and Georgia each began construction of two new nuclear plants. The challenge for these and for any new nuclear job is to resurrect and relearn construction methods, specialized equipment supply, workforce skills and regulatory processes that have been effectively dormant for decades.

Imagine if we’d long ago stopped manufacturing automobiles in the US, and then decided to jump start our entire auto industry thirty years later. That would be a monumental undertaking: the first Ford that rolled off the brand new, built-from-scratch assembly line would surely cost a fortune.

Not surprisingly, these new nuclear construction projects have both have been fraught with highly publicized cost overruns and schedule delays. The two South Carolina units (VC Summer 2 and 3) have been cancelled. Meanwhile, construction of the two new units at Georgia’s Plant Vogtle forges ahead, alone in the nation. Their leadership in this important venture deserves recognition and respect.

Reopening the US nuclear option is a beckoning opportunity for common, sensible ground. Instead of debating the environmental merits of a Green New Deal that is infeasible, unaffordable and will never happen, let’s get behind a different path— full bore support to both expanded renewables and renewed nuclear—that can actually be achieved and will benefit our energy supply, our economy and the planet.


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