To cut carbon emissions, the nuclear option isn't optional

Climate is taking center stage in the 116th Congress: the U.S. House of Representatives has held its first hearings on climate change, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezGOP senator voices concern about Trump order, hasn't decided whether he'll back it Ocasio-Cortez in Bronx speech: New Yorkers deserve ‘dignified jobs’ Amazon exec invites Ocasio-Cortez to tour facilities after criticism MORE (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyGreen New Deal Resolution invites big picture governing We can have a Green New Deal, and air travel too 2020 Dem slams Green New Deal: As realistic as Trump's claim that Mexico will pay for wall MORE (D-Mass.) introduced legislation for a Green New Deal.

With every new report of rising carbon emissions and its consequences — including recent findings that oceans are warming unsustainably and Antarctica’s ice reserves are disappearing at a dangerous rate — the argument that we can afford to neglect or reject emissions-free sources like nuclear grows more absurd.

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The answer to the climate crisis won’t be as simple as replacing carbon with renewables and batteries. Our power grid must rely on other sources of power for times when demand is greater than wind and solar productionAnd, despite the appeal of a fully-renewable electric system backed with battery storage, such a system is currently not feasible, even with dramatically reduced battery costs.

And for all the hopes that a revolutionary technology will emerge, we already have in nuclear what a clean energy system demands: a reliable, resilient, emissions-free source that can complement renewables and run around the clock.

Even as coal plants closed last year at a record pace, carbon emissions increased more than three percent, the second-largest increase in two decades. When nuclear plants close, states are forced to turn to dirtier sources for their energy and emissions go up. A recent peer-reviewed study concluded that leaving nuclear out of a clean electricity system actually makes the effort more expensive. 

As the climate changes, so do opinions. The Union of Concerned Scientists, which hasn’t always been so sympathetic to nuclear, now agrees that keeping today’s nuclear reactors running is vital to the emissions fight. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s climate change experts; The Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest environmental organization; and even Google, one of the world’s largest energy consumers, also agree that nuclear energy can play an essential role in cutting carbon emissions. 

It’s not hard to see why. Nuclear is by far our nation’s largest carbon-free energy source, able to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, even in extreme weather. Nuclear energy is already responsible for 20 percent of the country’s total electricity and more than half of our carbon-free energy. We rely on nuclear for energy, and to keep local economies humming; across 30 states, nuclear creates jobs for nearly a half a million Americans.

Yet, at a time when we should make the most of our most resilient, clean energy options and increase our nuclear footprint, the outlook for nuclear is decidedly mixed. The good news is that policymakers in Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey and New York now recognize nuclear plants for their zero emissions and other attributes.

The bad news is that seven nuclear plants have already closed, and 12 more are slated to close. Those plants alone produce enough clean energy to power all of the homes in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania for a year.

Plants in Ohio and Pennsylvania sit on the chopping block. Their demise would imperil our energy supply, job market and public health. In Pennsylvania alone, nuclear supplies 42 percent of the state’s electricity, 93 percent of Pennsylvania’s clean energy, and employs more than 16,000 people. In Ohio, we are talking about 4,300 jobs and 90 percent of the state’s clean energy.

The first actions taken by Congress this week will help define the conversation for months if not years. How will we as a nation address the climate crisis? What policy options do we pursue? Now is not the time to shun or shut down plants that will keep the air cleaner, keep the lights on, and keep America energy independent. To keep today’s reactors running, we must create a policy framework that gives innovators and investors confidence that there will be a market for their new nuclear technologies, just as we’ve successfully done for wind and solar. We need to adopt clean energy standards that combine nuclear and renewables to help cut emissions rapidly, reliably and affordably.

Many of our unprecedented climate and carbon challenges are confounding — so when we see an obvious way forward, we should follow it. If we want to stop the surge of carbon emissions, we have to prevent closure of our nuclear reactors and start investing more in making our most reliable energy option even better. Protecting our energy, economy and environment means that nuclear isn’t optional at all.

Maria Korsnick is president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute