NUCLEAR ENERGY, NUCLEAR OPTION
Reports of the death of nuclear power have been greatly exaggerated. The World Nuclear Association stated last month that, in 2020, the 93 operable nuclear reactors in the U.S. were responsible for 19.7% of all electricity generated in the country. Viewed against the report from last July by the U.S. Energy Information Administration that all renewable sources of energy together accounted for a comparable 21% of U.S. electricity during the same year, that tidbit makes clear that nuclear energy is not nearly as unwelcome or uncommon as many might suspect. However, its future is not necessarily so bright.
Despite broad acknowledgment of nuclear energy as a clean energy option, its reliance on the finite supply of uranium available on Earth rules it out as renewable. Consequently, it is usually excluded from many state and federal renewable energy incentives and associated voluntary credit programs. Some states have tried to keep their nuclear plants viable through the use of zero emission credits. Nonetheless, falling electricity prices have overcome such efforts and contributed to the recent shutdown of three such facilities in 2020 and 2021, according to the June 2021 report by the Congressional Research Service titled U.S. Nuclear Plant Shutdowns, State Interventions, and Policy Concerns.
As electricity prices keep dropping, more nuclear reactors can be expected to close, and the trend could not be more inconvenient. If the Biden Administration manages to enact the Clean Future Act and other anticipated environmental commitments for the U.S., carbon-sourced electricity will become even more of a pariah than it already is, yet, as the U.S. energy industry continues to abandon coal, economic priorities have tended to steer it toward natural gas instead. National Geographic Society explains that natural gas does emit fewer greenhouse gases than coal, is easy to store and transport, and is domestically abundant. Still, natural gas is another fossil fuel (albeit a relatively clean one) that emits carbon, begging the questions of whether and how renewable energy alone can make the U.S. reach its environmental targets as long as it is the prevailing fuel source.
Meanwhile, nuclear power is an emission-free (post-mining) resource with immense capacity, and the graph below from the International Energy Agency shows that its global presence was still considerable as recently as three years ago. The implementation costs of nuclear plants are admittedly high, but stakeholders placing all of their proverbial eggs in the renewable-energy basket may be missing an opportunity to help their cause by making that investment in nuclear energy now instead of rebuffing the option altogether.