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Climate Change Solutions: Nuclear Energy and Carbon Capture Technology

Photo: Windmills on a hill

The frozen wind turbines seen during last month’s Texas blackout along with the regular rolling blackouts we see during California summers draw attention to the uncomfortable reality of wind and solar energy: they are not reliable enough to support the United States’ energy grids. As technology advances, solar and wind batteries may be able to store more energy. Yet currently, energy storage for these renewables is poor. Given these constraints, federal and state governments should look to capitalize on other options — nuclear energy as well as natural gas, used in conjunction with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology — which are highly efficient, reliable, and clean solutions that can power the United States without interruption. 

Solar panels and wind turbines only generate energy when the sun shines and the wind blows. Solar panels purportedly last only 25 years, and according to the International Renewable Energy Agency, by 2050 solar panels will generate six million metric tons of waste every year. Wind turbines also create large amounts of toxic waste; building a wind turbine requires 150 tons of coal and two tons of rare-earth metals. The mining of these rare earth metals has a detrimental environmental impact. Nuclear reactors and natural gas plants produce waste as well, of course. Nuclear reactors produce radioactive waste which is stored in safe areas. While scientists are still researching how to dispose of nuclear waste, strict regulations control the handling and disposal of the waste. Natural gas plants produce waste as well, however CCS technology can significantly mitigate this.

Nuclear energy, as well as natural gas coupled with CCS technology, are remedies for climate change that are too often ignored. In the US, nuclear energy accounts for just 20 percent of electricity generation, while natural gas makes up 40 percent of energy consumption. Nuclear energy functions 93 percent of the time — more than any other energy source. This significant base-load of energy is essential for the energy grid, especially for when natural disasters hit in states like Texas. Nuclear energy is not only the safest form of energy but also produces zero carbon emissions. Nuclear energy can supplant coal and oil — unclean energy sources that only supply 22 percent of energy in the US. While CCS technology in some cases has reduced emissions by 50 to 70 percent, it is projected to be able to reduce emissions by as much as 90 percent. If federal and state governments are serious about combating climate change, it is imperative they consider shifting to a greater reliance on nuclear energy and natural gas coupled with carbon capture technology. Nuclear energy is reliable, safe, and carbon free. Nuclear energy also avoids adding thousands of tons of pollutants to the atmosphere each year. One 1,000-megawatt nuclear reactor generates energy equivalent to three million solar panels and more than 430 wind turbines. The benefit is clear — nuclear reactors can create enormous amounts of energy without having a substantial physical impact on the environment. Moreover, due to the density of nuclear fuel, nuclear energy does not create huge amounts of waste. Nuclear power also emits less radiation than any other source of energy. It is also extremely efficient. For every nuclear reactor that shuts down prematurely, one million solar panels need to be installed on homes in order to generate the equivalent amount of energy, and more efficient battery storage for those panels would have to be created in order to provide electricity at night. 

Despite its benefits, nuclear energy has been abandoned by the energy industry in favor of renewables. Nuclear energy does not receive the subsidies that renewables do, while regulations have stunted innovation in designs of nuclear reactors. Despite this, there have been promising advances in nuclear reactors. Georgia Power is building Plant Vogtle Units Three and Four which use new AP1000 technology which features safety systems. The company NuScale is opening the door to “advanced nuclear,” building a nuclear reactor that is smaller, less complex, and a fraction of the cost of standard reactors today. Nuscale’s new reactor is safer and has more safety mechanisms in place, making the reactor less reliant on human involvement in the case of a problem. As of 2016, 19 nuclear reactors in the US are being dismantled. A lack of investment in nuclear has led to a steep decline in the US nuclear industry when we need it most. In 2017, investment in nuclear power decreased by 45 percent while new nuclear capacity tanked 70 percent. Maintaining nuclear reactors carries a high price tag, and construction delays have resulted in even higher costs. Meanwhile, our chief economic competitor, China, has wisely increased its reliance on nuclear energy. The International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that by 2030, China will surpass the US as the premier producer of nuclear energy

Many politicians have promised that nuclear plants can be replaced by wind and solar. Not only is this an enormous task — half of America’s clean energy comes from nuclear reactors — but wind and solar do not provide energy when the wind is not blowing or the sun is not shining. Federal and local governments need to increase our reliance on nuclear energy. Moreover, they should invest in the research and creation of new nuclear reactors such as those that are being built by NuScale. The IEA warns that if advanced economies fail to invest in new reactors and do not extend the longevity of reactors currently in place, the consequence would be four billion more tons of CO2 in the atmosphere.

When carbon capture technology is used in conjunction with the burning of natural gas, the carbon is isolated from other gases produced in the industrial processes and then transferred through pipelines to underground, where it is stored in geological formations. While the technology is not widely deployed at this point, carbon capture has been proven to work, and it has been endorsed as an essential tool in combating climate change by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Moreover, the IEA says carbon capture, use, and storage technologies have the potential to cut carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 20 percent and reduce the bill for combating climate change by 70 percent. The company NET Power has successfully run a gas power plant that uses CCS in La Porte, Texas, and they recently announced plans to build four more plants. NET Power actually uses a combination of both carbon capture and sequestration to achieve net zero emissions. Rather than burning natural gas with air, this process involves burning it with oxygen. Carbon capture does not have to only be isolated to natural gas, and it is going to have to expand into other industries in order to meet the Biden Administration’s climate goals. Carbon capture has been added to steel plants such as Petra Nova in Texas. Unfortunately, low oil prices forced Petra Nova to close in 2020. Petra Nova reduced carbon emissions by 70 percent, which, while not meeting expectations, is still significant. CCS technology also captures pollutants such as sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxide, and particulates. Despite the carbon emissions that coal produces, coal is essential to making steel in the vast majority of cases and therefore CCS is the answer. Other industrial processes will require carbon capture technologies as well to meet US climate goals. Fertilizer plants, as well as steel, cement, and chemical plants will need to adopt CCS. 

Federal and state governments should pass legislation that create more incentives to invest in carbon capture technology such as tax credits and subsidies. As of 2018, only 0.1 percent of clean energy investments were in carbon capture technology. However, there is cause for optimism. ExxonMobil announced in February that it will allocate $3 billion toward the creation of carbon capture technology, while Tesla and SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk, has pledged  $100 million to anyone who comes up with the “best carbon capture technology.”

Natural gas plants, even those that use CCS, do have environmental problems. Methane leaks from these plants are detrimental to the environment, and these leaks may be more common than previously understood. Because methane emissions cannot be seen by the naked eye, emissions monitors should be mandatory at all natural gas plants in order to detect methane leaks, so companies can expeditiously isolate and repair them. CCS technology at this point is very expensive, which has been a barrier to its adoption. However, with more technological innovation and government subsidies, the cost will hopefully be reduced.

Some members of Congress have realized that the future of clean energy is in carbon capture and nuclear energy. As part of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, the Senate passed the FUTURE Act, which increased the tax credit given to businesses that use carbon capture. Representative Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) sees the promise of carbon capture technology to combat climate change, introducing two bills that were signed into law in December of 2020. The first is the LEADING Act which directs the Department of Energy to give competitive grants to companies that create carbon capture technology. The New Energy Frontier bill creates a Carbon Innovation Center to research new ways to put carbon dioxide to use. Crenshaw advocates for carbon to be reused for “everything from enhanced oil recovery to cement production to plant growth.” These are steps in the right direction. Instead of letting carbon dioxide destroy the environment, we can make use of it. Doing so would show American innovation at its finest. 

Congress is also taking some action on nuclear energy. In 2019, Senators Chris Coon (D-DL) and Martha McSally (R-AZ) introduced the Nuclear Energy Renewal Act (NERA) that creates programs that slash the operation and maintenance costs of existing nuclear power plants as well as back research and development of advanced nuclear reactors. In 2020, Senators John Barrasso (R-WY), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Mike Crapo (R-ID), and Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced the American Nuclear Infrastructure Act (ANIA) which helps keep nuclear reactors in operation through a targeted credit program, incentivizes investment into nuclear reactors, and fast-tracks the approval process of advanced nuclear technologies. These bills should be signed into law as they would help revamp the stalled nuclear power industry. We need more legislation on nuclear power and CCS. They are the clean energy solutions to remedy the growing threat of climate change. 

Photo: Image via Unsplash (Mario Caruso)