France’s president Emmanuel Macron came to COP26 with a strong message: France will “relaunch the construction of nuclear reactors in our country” to “guarantee our country's electricity supply.”
Amongst a plethora of vague promises and non-binding “agreements” at COP26, Macron’s concrete pledge to carry out a proven decarbonization plan was a rare statement—one that will also help Europe climb out of its self-inflicted energy crisis. By shifting to renewables too soon and closing reliable nuclear power plants, Europe is burdened with higher energy bills and looming blackouts this winter. This grim reality has forced some countries to reassess nuclear power’s role in meeting decarbonization pledges while prompting others to double down on their foolish opposition to the controversial clean energy source.
Because renewables like solar and wind produce power intermittently, we will never be able to solely rely on them. To supplement renewables variability, we need reliable baseload energy sources, and currently, the most viable alternatives remain fossil fuel sources like natural gas and coal. America is fortunate to be energy independent, largely due to robust Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) production over the past decade. In addition, it has a reliable, though dwindling, nuclear base. For the most part, this has allowed us to easily fill in the gap when renewables falter.
Europe, however, is another story. Most European countries have subsidized renewables and cut fossil fuel production, which has dropped around twenty eight percent since peaking in 2004. Fossil fuels haven’t gone away entirely, but most European countries simply import more and produce less. This leaves Europe vulnerable to market volatility. For instance, when natural gas prices shot up as much as six hundred percent this year, Europe was exposed. Russia is essentially keeping them on life support by strategically controlling the supply of natural gas, which it has been accused of weaponizing.
Compounding the issue is the misguided abandonment of nuclear power. When the Fukushima meltdown occurred in 2011, most EU countries decided to part with nuclear power because of safety concerns. Most dramatic was Germany, which immediately took eight of seventeen reactors offline. Replacing abandoned nuclear energy with coal and imported natural gas, Germany plans to close its remaining six reactors in 2022. Italy, Belgium, Spain, and Switzerland are all on the same course.
Although its leader, Xi Jinping, didn’t attend COP26, China made headlines last week after announcing a rollout of 150 nuclear plants by 2035. Meanwhile, it was announced that the UK will finance the development of sixteen small reactors. The United States made worthwhile commitments to exporting advanced nuclear technology but was noticeably quiet about saving existing plants, half of which are slated for retirement by 2030.
It was a welcome reprieve to see major leaders on the world stage embracing nuclear for a change, instead of the usual myopic focus on renewables. Leaders are slowly acknowledging the fact that safety and waste disposal concerns around nuclear are largely over-stated. Vastly more people have died from air pollution by burning biomass and fossil fuels than have died from nuclear accidents—just over a hundred compared to 4.2 million premature deaths in 2016 alone, for example. Around fifty of those deaths came from the Chernobyl disaster, and no deaths resulted from radiation at Three Mile Island or Fukushima. Additionally, modern reactor designs have improved the technology, mitigating the possibility of future accidents.
For decades, the anti-nuclear movement’s main argument was that radiation exposure from nuclear accidents was killing people. Studies have confirmed, however, that very few people were exposed to more than common “background” radiation from nuclear reactor accidents. Background radiation is natural and normal and we live with it all the time. Colorado, for example, has less atmosphere protecting it from cosmic rays, and its earth is rich in uranium which gives off radioactive radon gas. That means Coloradans live with higher levels of background radiation, yet they face no greater risk of radiation poisoning than other Americans.
Waste is another common concern, but it actually is entirely manageable. While waste can remain radioactive for thousands of years, the degree of that radioactivity decreases dramatically within a mere decade. Plus the waste is stored in steel vessels, set in concrete, above ground, meaning it would be virtually impossible for that waste to seep into groundwater.
Energy security is essential to any country’s survival. Handing that to Russia is a downright failure of politicians who dogmatically embraced a radical shift in energy resources without properly assessing the hurdles. In light of this reality, world leaders are waking up to the fact that the costs of abandoning nuclear far outweigh the risks.
If only President Joe Biden would get onboard. Biden’s message to the world at COP26 painted a dark picture of “the growing catastrophe” of climate change unless we go all-in on renewables. In other words, he called for the world to repeat Germany’s mistakes which have led them to their current crisis. If President Biden took any lesson from COP26, it should be that shunning nuclear will set America up for failure. Let’s hope he heeds Europe’s warning and embraces nuclear.
Kat Dwyer is a Young Voices contributor and co-host of the Whiskey bench podcast. Her writing has appeared in National Review, the Washington Examiner, and others. Follow her on Twitter @KatJDwyer.
Patrick Hynes is a Young Voices contributor and an editorial associate at The Conservation Coalition. He also serves as chairman of the Libertarian Party of Washington, DC, and ran for DC’s Delegate to Congress in 2020. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickHynesDC.