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Could environmentalists entertain nuclear energy as a partner with renewables?

A new study published in Energy & Environmental Science suggests that the U.S. could meet 80 percent of its energy needs with renewable sources. But what about the other 20 percent? That's where things get tricky, and it's where the environmental movement could benefit from a more flexible position on nuclear energy. 

I've never quite understood the fierce opposition to nuclear power from environmental groups. Yes, we all know the dangerous implications of mishandled nuclear facilities: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima. But those are the exception to the rule. If we're going to consider the disasters, we should also consider the successes. Take France, for instance, which generates three-quarters of its energy from nuclear, the result of a decades-old policy aimed at ensuring the country remains energy independent. I wouldn't rule out the possibility of a massive cover-up by the French government, but as far as we know, there's never been a major accident.  

Wind and solar energy are obviously preferable to nuclear, but until we make dramatic improvements in storage technology, it appears unlikely they'll be able to cover all of our energy needs. For the foreseeable future, there's going to have to be a non-renewable component to our energy portfolio. So why not embrace the non-renewable option that does the least damage to the environment? At the very least, the environmental movement should be more receptive to emerging nuclear technology that would produce significantly less radioactive waste, such as molten salt reactors.

There are some promising efforts in the nuclear field that could produce reactors in the coming years that not only present a much lower safety risk but are far cheaper to build and operate. It's happening here as well as in other countries and involves molten salt reactors, traveling wave reactors and thorium-based reactors. It's unclear how the technology will develop in the coming years, but if they prove to be as good as the hype, then hopefully environmentalists will give them serious consideration as a potential partner with renewable sources in our efforts to reduce carbon emissions and combat climate change. 

Jack Craver's picture

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