Updated: May 31
For climate scientists, the debate over nuclear power is long over. The world’s top climate scientists have long recognized that nuclear power is absolutely necessary to replace fossil fuels. Nuclear power is the largest source of clean energy in the country, and nuclear power plants produce energy all the time, while solar and wind only generate power when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing. In instances where nuclear power plants have closed, emissions have increased and in some instances those plants have been directly replaced by natural gas refineries. Unfortunately, what is common sense for climate scientists isn’t for too many people, and their fears of a nuclear meltdown make the widespread adoption of nuclear power impossible.
The Power of Fear
In 2016, a Gallup poll showed that for the first time ever, the majority of Americans opposed nuclear power. There are many reasons for this public antipathy toward nuclear power, but the biggest one is fear of a nuclear meltdown. A fifty year-old American would have experienced the Three Mile Island disaster at the age of nine, the Chernobyl disaster at the age of sixteen, and the Fukushima disaster at forty-one. There are no deaths attributable to Three Mile Island, just one death attributable to Fukushima, and the Chernobyl disaster took place not at a nuclear power plant but at a nuclear weapons facility that had been converted into a power plant, but what matters is not facts but public perception. People look at these disasters (especially Chernobyl, the worst nuclear disaster in history and one that was dramatized in a successful HBO miniseries) and envision them happening in their own neighborhoods. The worst part about this fear is that it reinforces itself. Even if someone does not fear nuclear power, the knowledge that others do might make them hesitant to support a nuclear power plant in their neighborhood for fear that housing prices would fall.
Opposition to nuclear power comes not just from the general public but from environmentalists and activists. Among the opponents of nuclear power are the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led movement that built around supporting the Green New Deal is opposed to nuclear power. The original text of the Green New Deal as it was written by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez contained no mention of nuclear power, nor did the climate plans of Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris. Bernie Sanders actively opposed nuclear power and called for nuclear power plants to be phased out. It’s hard to reconcile this gap between climate scientists and environmental activists, but it can be explained by the “small is beautiful” mentality of environmentalists, who are easily seduced by solar and wind because it is small and decentralized. Nuclear power requires centralization, as it isn’t possible at this stage in the technology’s development for everyone to have their own personal nuclear reactor. It may also be because of the technology’s association with nuclear weapons.
The Falling Out
Outside of the United States, nuclear power is on the decline. Throughout the developed world, aging nuclear plants are being closed down, while high start-up costs and regulatory burdens make the construction of new plants difficult. The developed world stands to lose 25 percent of its nuclear capacity by 2025. The pandemic has only made this phenomenon worse. Lower electricity demand had caused a small drop in nuclear energy production from 2019 to 2020. Outside of the developed world, India has reached an agreement with France to build six new power plants with French technology, but that doesn’t necessarily bode well for nuclear power anywhere else.
It is probably unhelpful to speculate too much on why there is so much opposition to nuclear power (and some of it may be astroturfed activism funded by oil companies), because what is more important is the fact that public opinion is against nuclear power and will not be moved anytime soon. Scientists who point out the advantages of nuclear power are fighting for a good cause, but it is a fight that they have already lost. Instead, more priority needs to be given to technologies that don’t inspire the same fear and opposition, such as carbon capture.