US committee hears plea for Green Nuclear Deal

22 January 2020

Environmental advocate Michael Shellenberger has called for the US administration to support the nation's nuclear energy industry in what he calls a Green Nuclear Deal. Speaking to the US House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology last week, Shellenberger said people need not be passive victims of climate change and there is much that could be done to reduce the impacts of "climate-driven extremes".

Shellenberger (fourth from left) addressing the committee (Image: House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology)

Shellenberger was speaking as an expert witness at the 15 January hearing, An Update on the Climate Crisis: From Science to Solutions. The president of research and policy organisation Environmental Progress, he was one of a panel of five expert witnesses called to testify before the full committee meeting, alongside Pamela McElwee, associate professor of human ecology at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey; Richard Murray, deputy director and vice president for research at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; Heidi Steltzer, professor of environment and sustainability at Fort Lewis College, Colorado; and Taryn Fransen, senior fellow of global climate programme at the World Resources Institute.

In his testimony, Shellenberger said "apocalyptic assertions" relating to climate change had contributed to rising levels of anxiety, particularly amongst young people, and worsening political polarisation. Such extreme assertions could be debunked by science, he said, and although climate change may make some natural disasters more frequent and more extreme, humans need not be "passive victims" of environmental change.

"Policymakers routinely take action on non-apocalyptic problems," he said, adding that while the risk of crossing unknown "tipping points" rises with higher temperatures, there is much that could be done to reduce the impacts of climate-driven extremes.

"The American people have an interest in supporting reasonable measures to transition from carbon-intense to low-carbon fuels to stop global temperatures increasing by more than 3 degrees. The most important of these measures by far is the expanded use of nuclear energy," he said.

Solar and wind suffer from inherent unreliability, large land use requirements and large materials requirements. These make the electricity they produce expensive and their environmental impacts large, and limit their capacity to replace fossil fuels, he noted. Citing a 2019 University of Chicago report, Shellenberger said US consumers and states with renewable energy standards - that is, a requirement that a certain fraction of energy requirements are met from renewable sources - spent USD125 billion more on electricity than they would have otherwise over the last decade.

Green Nuclear Deal

However, the USA stands at risk of ceding its role as creator, promoter and steward of the world's "most sensitive dual-use technology" to its main geopolitical rivals, Shellenberger said.

"The US invented nuclear energy for civilian use in the 1950s, and yet over three-quarters of new nuclear reactors globally are being built by the Chinese and Russians. Everyone recognises that for the US to compete in building nuclear power plants abroad we must build them at home. And yet electric utilities may close half of America's nuclear plants over the next two decades.

"Even were utilities to replace every nuclear plant that closes with small modular reactors the electricity generated would be roughly two-thirds less. And if nations were one day to opt for smaller reactors they would likely purchase them from those nations that offer the most favourable financial terms and the most experience, which is Russia and China," he said.

"In the 1950s, members of Congress understood the sensitive and special nature of this technology, and pressured a distracted White House to make American dominance of nuclear energy a top national security priority," he said. "The same thing is required today. We need a new act of Congress, perhaps a revision to the Atomic Energy Act, and perhaps we should call it Green Nuclear Deal, in recognition of its importance not just to national security but also to the economy, the environment, and the climate."

The hearing followed an inaugural climate hearing held by the committee in February 2019. Since then, said the committee's chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, it had held numerous hearings examining the climate crisis and moved a number of important climate-related bills forward, including work on legislative proposals to improve earth system science and deep decarbonisation efforts and the authorisation of strategic increases in funding for clean energy research and development.

"Despite these accomplishments, there remains more work to do to ensure that the United States can better understand, mitigate, and adapt to climate change," she said. "Though this Administration has so far abdicated its role as a leader in addressing the climate crisis, many of us in Congress are committed to addressing all aspects of this global threat," she added.

In his opening statement, Frank Lucas, who is the committee's Ranking Member - the senior member of the minority Republican party on the committee - said he was disappointed that over the past year the committee had focused its attention on applied research in industries like wind and solar rather than "more basic research that will lead to the next generation of technologies that are needed to reduce global emissions, like carbon capture, nuclear power, and fusion energy".

"We won’t successfully address greenhouse gas emissions with pie-in-the-sky policies that demand 100% renewable energy at the expense of reliable power from nuclear and fossil fuels," he said, adding that the market exists for the implementation of "groundbeaking" innovations including advanced nuclear that could bring economic benefits while reducing carbon emissions.

"Nuclear power is clean, safe, reliable, and growing more affordable by the day. Private companies are developing advanced reactors that provide clean, carbon-free power. With support from [the Department of Energy], these advanced technologies could provide cheap, reliable, emissions-free power around the world," he said.

A video recording of the hearing is available.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News