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Nuclear Energy Is a Reliable Source That Also Shrinks Emissions

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03/22/2021
Originally Published in RealClearMarkets on 3/22/21.

If the near total collapse of the Texas energy grid on the morning of February 15th demonstrates anything, it proves the importance of reliable energy production. In short, federal and state policies that pick winners and losers among clean energy sources steered both public funding and private investment away from reliable sources. Hopefully, policymakers will learn their lesson from the events in Texas and wake up to the reality that energy security requires a diversity of reliable sources; chief among them is nuclear power.

While the cold snap froze wind turbines and forced many thermal plants offline, nuclear energy production remained remarkably reliable. In fact, reports show that only one half of a single two-reactor facility was forced offline by the cold. What’s more, this outage was an oddity among nuclear plants and was the direct result of bad management and lack of preparation. The outage at the South Texas Nuclear Power Station -- one of Texas’ four nuclear plants -- accounted for a mere 1,280 of the nearly 30,000 lost megawatts of production that left the state less than five minutes from a catastrophic failure.

While issues of management, preparation, and weatherization are ultimately to blame for the disaster, had the State of Texas invested more heavily in nuclear energy, the impact of the freezing temperatures may very well have been less devastating.

Nuclear power is particularly well situated to become even more important in the coming decades. The Biden administration’s push for a “carbon pollution-free electricity sector no later than 2035,” practically necessitates increased investment in nuclear energy if we are to maintain a secure, reliable energy grid. The International Atomic Energy Agency explained it best:

“As they can operate at full capacity nearly uninterrupted, nuclear power plants can provide a continuous and reliable supply of energy. This is in contrast to variable renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, which require back-up power during their output gaps, such as when the sun sets or the wind stops blowing. Nuclear power plants can also operate flexibly to meet fluctuations in energy demand and provide stability to electrical grids, particularly those with high shares of variable renewable sources.”

Historically, the United States has been a leader in nuclear energy. Between the 1970’s and early 2000’s, nuclear production increased sharply. Unfortunately, that trend has since plateaued. While nuclear remains the largest source of emissions free energy in the United States, the International Energy Agency warns that the shift in investment from nuclear power to other sources like wind and solar are resulting in what they term a “nuclear fade case.” Combined with increased reliance on unreliable sources like wind and solar, such a scenario is likely to result in future disasters like the near collapse of the Texas grid.

Currently, the Department of Energy (DOE) maintains a stranglehold on new development of nuclear energy, creating massive hurdles for states wishing to invest in robust and diverse energy production. Fortunately, a new petition for rulemaking presents the Department with an opportunity to work collaboratively with states that wish to invest in nuclear energy. More specifically, this petition requests public comments on allowing states to “collaboratively develop new nuclear technologies...including but not limited to the development of small nuclear reactors.”

Federal agencies should never be in a position to pick winners and losers, especially as they are currently doing with energy markets. Accepting this petition for rulemaking does not require nuclear development. Rather, it simply allows those states who wish to invest in reliable energy production the latitude to do so. Hopefully, DOE will take this opportunity to support nuclear production as a more reliable, emissions free alternative to those sources it currently favors.

Luke Hogg is policy analyst at FreedomWorks.