President Joe Biden declared he will achieve a “100 percent clean energy economy and net-zero emissions no later than 2050.” To attain this goal, the United States will need to move away from fossil fuels entirely. The only feasible way to do this is to embrace an alternative energy source that is both clean and reliable. Nuclear, unlike other forms of renewable energy, meets both criteria.
Solar and wind power are the favored alternatives to fossil fuels, but when scaled up to meet modern energy demand, both face serious hurdles. Their Achilles heel is that they are inherently unreliable. California’s experience this past summer perfectly demonstrates this inconvenient reality. During a heatwave in late August, sweltering Californians were met with blackouts when their energy grid was overwhelmed during peak use times as millions turned up their air conditioning.
The Golden State was once considered a model for the future of energy, having made bold promises to convert their energy grid to 50 percent renewables by 2030. As of this writing, California gets about a third of its energy from renewables, putting it on track to meet its 2030 target. But achieving this goal comes at a price. Because energy production from renewable sources like wind and solar varies depending on basic factors—like the weather—storage of power is key to ensure there is enough energy available during times when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow. Battery storage, however, has proven to be a challenge. Again, look to California: home to one of the largest lithium battery storage centers in the world, the state can only store enough energy to power fourteen thousand of California’s thirteen million households. Storage capacity is simply insufficient.
Another challenge facing the Biden administration if it chooses to rely on renewables such as solar and wind to meet its carbon-neutral goals is land use. According to research from the American Enterprise Institute, meeting the 100 percent renewable target would mean devoting 115 million acres to energy production. That’s 15 percent larger than the land area of the Golden State. Sacrificing our open spaces for this type of energy development means sacrificing habitat for wildlife and plant species.
The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services published their Global Assessment Report this year and found that more than one million species worldwide are threatened with extinction primarily due to habitat loss. To preserve vulnerable plant and wildlife species, we need to conserve more habitat, not less. Converting huge swaths of undeveloped land to solar and wind farms could have a sizable and harmful impact on the very species we aim to protect.
Nuclear, on the other hand, is power dense and therefore requires very little land. For example, one nuclear reactor, occupying roughly one square mile of land, can produce as much energy as 3.125 million PV panels—and it can do so rain or shine. For example, one nuclear plant, occupying about two square miles of land, can produce as much energy as a solar farm sitting on twenty-one square miles—and it can do so rain or shine.
So to recap: Nuclear energy is a zero-emission source that’s reliable and that doesn’t require massive amounts of vital habitat to produce it. Why, then, isn’t it the preferred choice of alternative fuel championed by environmentalists?
In a word: fear. After infamous catastrophes like Chernobyl and Fukushima, the public understandably grew wary of nuclear power. Opponents cite concerns over safety and waste disposal. It’s true that nuclear waste can remain radioactive for thousands of years, and certainly nightmarish disasters like those that unfolded in Ukraine and Japan impose serious costs. However, the facts demonstrate that neither of these should be considered disqualifiers.
Nuclear energy is actually the safest form of energy we can produce. When comparing documented deaths caused by nuclear radiation compared to documented deaths caused by air pollution from burning biomass and fossil fuels, nuclear is vastly safer (just over 100 deaths total compared to 8 million in 2016 alone). As for waste, one of the beautiful things about nuclear energy is that it actually doesn’t produce much waste at all. In fact, when comparing toxic waste produced per unit of electricity generated, one finds solar panels produce 300 times more waste than nuclear power plants. Additionally, unlike the waste from fossil and biomass fuels emitted into the atmosphere, the waste produced by nuclear energy is contained on land.
Ultimately, the low power density of solar and wind simply makes them incapable of powering a modern society and undermines other environmental goals by threatening important habitats. Phasing out of the fossil fuel industry and shifting to renewables without including nuclear will make energy more expensive and less reliable, while posing a greater threat to our natural world. If the Biden administration is serious about meeting its goal of a 100 percent clean energy economy and net-zero emissions by 2050 or sooner, it must embrace nuclear energy.
Kat Dwyer is a Young Voices contributor working in the conservation policy space and is co-host of the Whiskey Bench podcast. Her writing has appeared in The Hill, OC Register, and others. Follow her on Twitter @KatJDwyer.