If, for a change, we ignore the worryingly popular climate deniers on the Republican side of the debate, we can see there is a schism developing on the Democratic side about how best to clean up US energy. Although both Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton are agreed on tackling climate change, they disagree on whether nuclear power should be part of the solution.
Sanders has long been against nuclear power, associating it with nuclear weapons and citing issues with the current reactors such as waste, cost and proliferation. His policy is to stop relicensing existing nuclear power plants, and move the staff to new renewable ventures. His total clean development plan aims for a cut in emissions of 40%, greater than that promised by Clinton. But it would also involve an early and rapid shrinkage of the US nuclear sector, currently 19% of electricity supply, at a time when electricity demand would be drastically growing to replace fossil fuels in other energy sectors.
This approach has however faced criticism with many claiming it is neither politically nor practically possible. Phasing out fossil fuels, which supply 67% of US electricity demand, would be very difficult to achieve whilst simultaneously phasing out nuclear. As Steve Clemmer, director of energy research for the Union of Concerned Scientists, has said “we don’t think anything should be off the table, including building new nuclear plants because decarbonizing the energy sector by 2050 is going to be a huge challenge”. The climate consequences of such a nuclear phase out is thought to be an increase in US carbon emissions of 2 billion tonnes.
In contrast, Hilary Clinton has also faced criticism from environmentalists over her defense of nuclear power as a low-carbon technology. Although she has been agnostic about nuclear in the past, in a recent press statement she stated “proposals to end natural gas production or rapidly shut down our nation’s nuclear power fleet put ideology ahead of science and would make it harder and more costly to build a clean energy future”. In addition, though Sanders has not mentioned advanced nuclear in his blanket ban of new build reactors, Clinton has said on her campaign fact sheets that she favours “advanced nuclear,” which requires “expand[ing] successful innovation initiatives and cut[ing] those that fail to deliver results.”
The incoming president will have big shoes to fill. Obama has prioritised climate change more than any other president in history, and has initiated many clean energy and environment policies, including the recent Gateway for Advanced Nuclear Innovation (GAIN). Though there is much reason for concern from the Republican camp, it is positive that both the Democratic front-runners are committed to climate change mitigation, though Weinberg Next Nuclear will always recommend achieving this mitigation with an “all of the above” approach that includes advanced, clean safe and sustainable nuclear power.