On Thursday, two Congressional Democrats, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, unveiled a sweeping "Green New Deal" initiative to fight climate change and revitalize the economy. As part of that initiative, the Green New Deal calls for the entire country to be powered by renewable energy. While solar and wind energy are prominently featured, one power source is deliberately left out: nuclear.
That’s absolutely the right call.
At first glance, it seems at least strange and perhaps short-sighted for any environmental plan that would move the U.S. entirely off fossil fuels to leave out nuclear power. After all, nuclear plants can produce an enormous amount of energy with no carbon emissions. Nuclear power can be generated consistently, where wind and solar are intermittent by nature. Nuclear plants could replace current coal or natural gas plants, or supplement solar or wind installations in populous areas.
And nuclear power is popular enough that plenty of environmental advocates like —the kind of people who used to oppose nuclear because of its unavoidable waste problem—want to see it incorporated into our long-term environmental strategy. However, despite the advantages, nuclear simply has too many downsides to ever be a viable way to produce electricity in the U.S. Primarily, it's just too damn hard and expensive to build new nuclear capacity in 21st century America.
To see why, take a look at the Watts Bar 2 nuclear power plant. Watts Bar 2 started supplying power in June of 2016, becoming the first nuclear power plant to be built in the U.S. in two decades. Overall, Watts Bar 2 was the result of 37 years of construction. For most of that period the reactor simply languished in a sort of economic limbo. Construction was halted in 1985 due to low energy prices and only resumed in 2007.
At that point, Watts Bar 2 faced another decade of construction delays and cost overruns. The reactor was initially scheduled to be completed in 2013; delays pushed back the start date to 2015 and again to 2016. The initial cost was ; the final cost, after a series of unanticipated hurdles, was $4.7 billion.
The truth is that with its delays, cost overruns, and other woes, Watts Bar 2 is a typical nuclear reactor project in the U.S., not an atypical one. Reactors are gigantic beasts, and sustaining a nuclear reaction while drawing power from it requires an absurd level of engineering. Reactors are expensive, bulky, and complicated, to say nothing of the waste products they produce or the fear of a catastrophe like Chernobyl or Fukushima.
If you think that Watts Bar 2 is an outlier, check out the Vogtle plant in Georgia. Vogtle is , and that project has had it even worse than Watts Bar. The plant has been under construction for a decade, even though it was supposed to be completed in 2016. As of this writing, the expected completion date is 2022. The initial cost of the Vogtle plant was supposed to be $14 billion. Today, it stands at $27 billion, and it’s probably going to climb even higher. These skyrocketing costs drove the Westinghouse Electric Company, one of the investors in the project, to .
This is what happens when someone tries to build a nuclear reactor in the United States today. A lot of things have happened since the nuclear heyday of the 70s and 80s, when . Regulations are tighter, communities are less enthusiastic, and competition from other power sources is higher. Increasingly, nuclear plants have to worry about where they store their waste, with disastrous results if they make a mistake.
On the other side of Tennessee, the same utility responsible for Watts Bar is . That farm will produce about 53 megawatts of electricity for the region at a cost of $100 million. If the Tennessee Valley Authority wanted to, it could build 21 more solar farms just like it for less than the initial cost of Watts Bar 2—and produce more power at peak times.
Now, solar farms don’t always operate at peak output, of course. But that doesn't mean the answer is nuclear. Instead, it’s diversification: The state can build a mix of solar, wind, and battery storage to supply their customers’ needs without the absurd overhead or complications. Tennessee already has a it can draw from as well, making it even easier for the state to transition to renewables.
Can we transition to 100 percent renewable electricity in a decade like the Green New Deal calls for? It’s tough to say. that we can run the country entirely on renewables using current technology, so it’s at least possible. It’ll be expensive and difficult, but it’s a better strategy than relying on costly and dangerous nuclear power.