The use of nuclear power is splitting Democratic presidential candidates, with Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and businessman Andrew Yang among those calling for new plants and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) arguing vehemently against any expansions.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who is vying with Sanders for the progressive mantle in the nomination fight and has been in the top three in polls alongside Sanders and Biden, hasn’t spelled out her position. Neither has Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), one of the few Democratic hopefuls yet to release a stand-alone comprehensive climate plan.
Nuclear power is one of the only environmental and energy issues that splits the Democratic candidates, who generally agree on the big-picture need to take action to address climate change and to strengthen regulations to protect the environment. But there is no clear consensus when it comes to the role of nuclear energy.
As candidates are looking to distinguish themselves in a crowded field, and with two climate forums this month, some environmentalists say candidates’ stances on nuclear power will be the most telling. That belief is especially true for climate activists who oppose nuclear altogether.
“Given that we don’t have a way to deal with the waste from our existing nuclear reactors, let alone any additional ones, that’s a cause for concern,” said Mitch Jones, climate and energy program director at Food and Water Action.
“If you’re trying to extend the life of existing nuclear power, then you do not have the most environmentally friendly approach to the problem.”
Nuclear energy powers one-fifth of all energy generation in the U.S. Many of the Democratic candidates who support transitioning the U.S. to renewable energy as quickly as possible say it can’t be done without nuclear.
“It’s imperative for the United States to lead the way on tackling the world’s climate crisis, and that must include the development of clean and innovative technologies like next-generation nuclear energy,” Booker said when he co-sponsored the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act earlier this year.
Booker rolled out a $3 trillion comprehensive climate policy on Tuesday and called for an investment of $20 billion for the “research, development and demonstration of next-generation advanced nuclear energy.”
Yang’s climate plan, released last week, would invest heavily in nuclear by aiming to break ground on new nuclear reactors by 2027 as part of an effort to achieve a 100 percent renewable electric grid by 2035.
And former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (Texas) “believes that nuclear power has a role to play in moving us towards the goal of achieving net-zero greenhouse emissions by 2050,” national press secretary Aleigha Cavalier said in a statement to The Hill, adding that the Democratic candidate “supports research in advanced nuclear technologies.”
Neal Cohen, senior vice president for external affairs at the Nuclear Energy Institute, said most candidates’ renewable energy timelines could not be met if nuclear is not part of the mix.
“Nuclear represents close to 55 percent of the carbon-free energy in this country. If you are going to reduce emissions you are going to need to maintain that level and add more carbon-free resources, whether that be wind, solar, carbon capture and other additional nuclear energy,” he said.
“It’s not going to solve the problem if you take nuclear offline,” he added. “We start actually even digging a bigger hole for ourselves. … What we start doing is filling the hole and not seriously reducing carbon emissions.”
But the industry is struggling financially. So far this year, two reactors are expected to be retired despite various government subsidies helping the industry. Only one new nuclear power plant has come online since 2010.
The energy source also has a tainted past, rife with references to Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. And nuclear waste remains an issue to this day.
No permanent solution has been determined as to where the toxic waste from reactors, which takes thousands of years to decay, should be stored.
Some candidates favor a compromise plan: no nuclear expansion, but no end to nuclear power either.
“Building new nuclear plants in the U.S. is not a sustainable long-term answer to fighting climate change, but nuclear will remain a significant source of carbon-free power in the short to medium term,” Buttigieg told The Washington Post.
Warren’s and Harris’s teams did not return requests for clarification on their nuclear energy stances.
Warren expanded on her climate goals Tuesday, but did not address nuclear energy.
Sanders, who is polling second among the 2020 Democrats in most surveys, occupies a space all his own when it comes to nuclear power.
His climate plan is the most hostile toward nuclear energy — extinguishing all reliance on it by ending lease renewals for reactors when they come up. His $16 trillion climate action plan, the most expensive offered by a Democratic candidate, would expand renewable generation by creating new public utilities and invest in wind and solar.
“We know that the toxic waste byproducts of nuclear plants are not worth the risks of the technology’s benefit, especially in light of lessons learned from the Fukushima meltdown and the Chernobyl disaster,” Sanders’s plan says.
“To get to our goal of 100 percent sustainable energy, we will not rely on any false solutions like nuclear, geoengineering, carbon capture and sequestration, or trash incinerators.”
Any candidate who supports expanding nuclear, or backs keeping plants up and running, faces another big political hurdle: what to do with the waste.
“The League of Conservation Voters has concerns with the cost of nuclear power on behalf of taxpayers to build nuclear plants. There are a lot of concerns of plants and the waste,” said Craig Auster, senior director of political affairs at the environmental group.
“If we are going to be talking about nuclear as part of [our climate action plan], what are the solutions with dealing with the storage of the waste?”
Nuclear storage is a crucial issue in Nevada, which will hold its caucuses on Feb. 22. Most voters there oppose any plans to restart operations at the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository, a site first developed in 2002 to permanently house high-level radioactive waste.
“Yucca Mountain for Nevadans is a non-starter … I’d say that with few exceptions Yucca Mountain is potentially one of the most bipartisan issues in the state,” said Andy Maggi, executive director of the Nevada Conservation League PAC.
“So any candidate coming to Nevada who is talking about nuclear energy has to have a plan for waste that doesn’t come through our desert.”
That led to some split messages or muted voices.
Booker, who supports investing in nuclear research, is opposed to using Yucca for storage.
“Cory believes that Nevadans deserve to have a voice on whether toxic waste should be stored in their community,” his campaign spokeswoman Vanessa Valdivia told E&E News.
But his campaign has offered no alternative location for storing the radioactive waste.
Warren has not mentioned nuclear power in any of her policy proposals, but she is a co-sponsor of the Nuclear Waste Informed Consent Act, which would allow the state to formally veto nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain.
“It says they want to win the Nevada primary, they don’t want to upset the electorate in Nevada. Nevada doesn’t want Yucca Mountain so they are trying to have it both ways,” said Jones.
“But I haven’t seen anyone who has an alternative solution. There aren’t any viable long-term solutions to this waste.”
Updated at 6:45 a.m.