Nuclear Energy: An Investment in our Environmental Future

Climate change is a serious problem getting worse, and it’s going to take more than one approach to solve it. I’ve invested in the next generation of nuclear power because I believe we need every tool in our toolbox to combat the rapidly increasing impacts of climate change.  For me, these investments are consistent with me putting 23 KW of solar panels on the roof of my home in California and driving an electric vehicle. 

Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, my support for nuclear power as a climate solution has often caused raised eyebrows.  Many of my peers came of age where being an environmentalist meant opposing nuclear power.  But that was before there was much science about the way carbon dioxide warms the planet, and before we faced anything like the current climate crisis.

That’s why I was heartened by a series of events in the last few weeks that have represented a changing tide among environmental thinking about nuclear power. 

First, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Global Warming of 1.5° C report made clear the need for nuclear power to reach decarbonization goals.  In the report, every feasible pathway to keep temperature rise below 1.5° C has a significant role for nuclear power.  In their high economic growth, high energy use scenario (the one with the greatest likelihood of addressing both climate change and global energy poverty), the IPCC calls for a quintupling of global nuclear power.  This is a massive increase in the amount of nuclear power around the world.

Second, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a group founded in opposition to nuclear weapons and with a skepticism of nuclear power baked into its “DNA,” released a groundbreaking report calling for support of existing nuclear power generation capacity in order to fight climate change.  The change was caused by simple math – when nuclear plants go offline, they are replaced by fossil fuels.  Those fossil fuel plants cause climate change, and we can’t afford to replace non-emitting power plants with those that make climate change worse.  The Boston Globe compared the release of this report as “Nixon going to China.”

Third, the World Resources Institute (WRI) reviewed and publicly supported UCS’s findings.  Their public statement said, “we need to use all instruments at our disposal to address the scourge of climate change: renewables, increased efficiency, nuclear, carbon capture and storage, and carbon removal.”  This is the first comment I’ve seen from WRI in support of nuclear power, and they are another important voice in the work to keep nuclear power viable in the United States. 

Fourth, the Nature Conservancy – one of the largest environmental organizations in the world – released a “Science and Sustainability” report that looked at scientifically rigorous ways to balance the needs of nature and humanity, and to present a set of recommendations to move forward. Their plan calls for nuclear to provide 33% of global power needs by 2050.  This is a significant increase in nuclear power over current levels, and consistent with the findings of the IPCC.

To be sure, lots of climate-oriented groups – Third Way, the Breakthrough Institute, Clean Air Task Force, Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, and others – have long advocated for nuclear power to play a role in decarbonization efforts.  But the strong and forceful pivots from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Union of Concerned Scientists, World Resources International, and the Nature Conservancy mark a significant change in how environmental leaders view the role of nuclear in climate change. 

This shift by leading environmental voices is important for nuclear power.  But more importantly, it’s important for our planet.  We simply do not have time to quibble with each other over which zero-carbon forms of clean energy should have priority.  Having all of the zero carbon forms of energy working together gives us a much better chance of solving the most pressing problem of our lifetime.  The growing consensus in the environmental community is key to that cooperation.