This week is Nuclear Week. While nuclear energy has often been haunted by its negative (but largely unfounded) associations with safety issues, it’s actually long been a source of carbon-neutral, reliable energy. As the United States weighs the different paths to take in combating climate change, policymakers should learn from the different choices made by two European countries, Germany and France.
In 2009, Germany was heralded as “The World’s First Major Renewable Energy Economy.” This title came with the release of a plan to completely switch over the country to renewable energy by 2050. The country also seeks to abandon nuclear energy by 2022.
Germany has made great strides towards its ambitious goals. In the first half of 2020, 48.7 percent of Germany’s power was produced by “renewables” (wind, hydro power, biomass, and solar). Nuclear made up 11.3 percent, natural gas contributed 16.1 percent, and hard coal only produced 6.4 percent of the power.
But this huge push for renewable energy has come with a cost, especially for lower-income households. Germany’s renewable energy is highly subsidized by increased fees passed down to individual consumers. A recent study found that between 2006 and 2017, Germany increased the cost of electricity for households by 50 percent. One fifth of each household’s electricity bill is composed of the renewables surcharge. Unsurprisingly, grid operators pass on the difference to consumers, resulting in private individuals paying one third of the country’s electricity bill despite consuming less than a quarter of the total electricity.
France’s energy history stands in stark contrast to Germany’s renewable energy approach. France has long been a leader in renewable energy, although through a less popular source: nuclear power. At the moment, about 75 percent of France’s electricity comes from nuclear energy. And not only is nuclear energy carbon neutral, it is also cheap. Due to the low cost of nuclear energy production, France is the world’s largest net exporter of electricity, bringing in over 3 billion euros per year.
The dominance of nuclear power in France is due to an energy policy focused on energy security. Because France does not have many natural energy resources, the country put their engineering expertise to work and chose nuclear energy as their path to the future.
As a result of their nuclear energy policy, for France, it’s been the best of times; for Germany, it’s been the worst of times. France generates less than one-tenth of Germany’s carbon emissions at nearly half the cost. Unfortunately, France appears to be caving to pressure to increase their share of traditional renewables such as wind and solar power. This change has resulted in higher emissions: That’s because France had to turn to natural gas consumption to fill in for more intermittent sources like wind and solar. It has also led to higher energy costs for French households.
Meanwhile, in the United States, we’re making great strides in nuclear energy technology. There are new nuclear power developments every day such as the development of small modular reactors and microreactors. This new technology would allow for the creation and use of smaller plants, which would expand the options for power plant locations and reduce capital investment. Both improvements would help lower the barrier for the commissioning of such projects.
At the same time, the U.S. Department of Energy announced last week that it had awarded two U.S. groups funding under the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, which is designed to “help domestic private industry demonstrate advanced nuclear reactors in the United States.” This is the type of government involvement that will encourage innovation and creativity by private companies, and a far better approach than aggressive mandates or strict regulations on companies and private citizens throughout the country.
The United States has taken a balanced approach to renewable energy and combating climate change by recognizing the current limitations of clean energy capabilities while encouraging new innovation by private companies and individuals. While renewable energy lacks the capabilities to provide reliable energy to Americans, we should take advantage of carbon-neutral nuclear power.
Nuclear power has proven to be the most reliable energy source without carbon emissions. Unfortunately, some work to demonize nuclear power. We should not let their bad arguments stand. We should correct these misperceptions and advocate for America to continue to take advantage of nuclear power and allow it to play its important role in our nation’s clean energy future.