In July, Berkeley became the first city in the country to ban natural gas in new low-rise residential buildings. Now more than 50 cities and counties in California are considering similar policies. San Francisco will introduce legislation that would eliminate natural gas in all significant renovations and new municipal construction.
While these efforts to look for alternate energy sources have received immense public attention, there has been less talk about an important climate bill recently introduced in the U.S. Senate. Senators Chris Coons, D-Delaware, and Martha McSally, R-Arizona, introduced the Nuclear Energy Renewal Act on Aug. 1, legislation that would aim to curb harmful greenhouse gas emissions and enhance the economic viability of U.S. nuclear power plants by helping them operate longer and more efficiently.
According to Coons, “Climate change poses an existential threat to our economy, our environment, and our national security. To address this threat, we need an innovative strategy to reduce emissions and enhance our ability to generate clean and consistent power. In 2017, the U.S. nuclear power fleet produced enough emissions-free energy to prevent the release of 547 million metric tons of CO2 into our atmosphere.”
This is more than solar, wind, and hydro powers combined. These renewables currently produce around 15 percent of U.S. electricity, while nuclear provides over 19 percent. In other words, nuclear power currently provides more than 55 percent of our carbon-free electricity.
Renewables have a large role to play in the coming decades, but we can’t entirely dismiss the benefits of nuclear power yet. Our grip on nuclear power, however, may be waning as 11 of 97 U.S. plants are scheduled to be retired by 2025 and even more thereafter. The Nuclear Energy Renewal Act would help to keep plants running safely and efficiently.
Further action is required beyond maintaining nuclear power plants. Leading climate scientists say that nuclear power generation has to increase significantly if we are to hit our climate goals. The International Energy Agency concluded that limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius will require doubling nuclear power’s share of global energy consumption by mid-century. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reached a similar conclusion: in most scenarios, limiting our warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius will require nuclear power generation to more than double.
Conveniently, the Nuclear Energy Renewal Act would also help to expand nuclear power by supporting research and development to speed the advent of advanced nuclear reactors. Advanced reactors are characterized by even safer designs, low waste, flexibility and generally smaller sizes.
Most Democratic presidential candidates recognize that nuclear power needs to be part of the climate equation. Joe Biden’s $5 trillion climate plan includes supporting advanced nuclear technologies, and five presidential candidates support building more nuclear plants, including Andrew Yang and Cory Booker.
Recent polls show that transitioning to 100 percent clean energy (which includes renewables, nuclear and carbon capture) appeals to more people than transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy. This isn’t lost on politicians.
A nuclear energy bill may be less catchy than a natural gas ban, but it’s at least as important for our climate future.
Braden Leach is a law student at the UC Berkeley School of Law, where he focuses on climate and energy issues.