Science & Technology



Climate change is shifting state views on nuclear power

Alex Brown, on

Published in Science & Technology News

In many of the states with the nation’s most aggressive climate goals, officials are investing millions of dollars to save the power source that was long the No. 1 target of many environmental activists: nuclear plants.

“We are moving expeditiously toward a clean energy mix, but that is going to take a while,” said Joe Fiordaliso, president of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities. “We can't build renewables fast enough, and people still need energy. Nukes are an important interim part of the mix.”

Despite long-standing safety concerns, many state leaders and some environmental groups say climate change poses a greater risk than reactors, and that preserving nuclear power will prevent an expansion of fossil fuel-powered plants. Nuclear plants provide about 19% of the nation’s electricity, far more than wind and solar combined. Some activists counter that state investments in nuclear plants are coming at the expense of renewable projects, slowing the clean energy transition.

Illinois lawmakers passed a climate bill last year that included a commitment to keep two of the state’s nuclear plants online for five years, even if they are losing money. The state gets more than half of its electricity from nuclear generation, and state leaders said keeping the plants open will buy more time to transition to wind and solar.

“We can build enough renewables and storage to replace those plants, but it will take years,” said Jack Darin, director of the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club. “(If nuclear plants shut down), we would see increased utilization of the existing very dirty coal plants, primarily in communities of color, and we would see huge advantages for natural gas to come in.”

Several other states, primarily on the East Coast, have pumped money into aging and in some cases unprofitable nuclear plants in recent years.


Jessica Azulay, executive director with the Alliance for a Green Economy, a New York-based environmental group that fought a 2016 state deal to subsidize nuclear plants, thinks that’s a mistake.

“It's an enormous amount of resources that are going to plants that are going to reach the end of their life soon anyway,” she said. “If we had put that money into renewables and efficiency, we would have gotten higher greenhouse gas reductions.”

Opponents also point to the environmental effects of uranium mining and processing, and ongoing concerns about the storage of radioactive waste. But reactors provide continuous, emissions-free power, advocates note, and safety standards have significantly reduced the risk of meltdowns.

The debate largely centers on the preservation of existing plants. Some experts think small, modular reactors could be developed in the future, and Connecticut and West Virginia lawmakers recently revoked state bans on new nuclear facilities partially in case that technology becomes feasible.


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