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Nuclear power is seeing support as a way to avert climate disaster, but faces hurdles

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

After years on the decline, nuclear power is seeing new investment from the federal government as well as from big names like Bill Gates. But as NPR's Laura Benshoff reports, while nuclear power is racing to be part of a green energy future, it has some unique baggage to overcome.

LAURA BENSHOFF, BYLINE: This year's big nuclear energy industry meeting took place in a windowless warren of Washington, D.C., conference rooms. Attendees milled around tables with swag and toy-sized model reactors before the lights went down, the music came up...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: President of the Nuclear Energy Institute Maria Korsnick.

(APPLAUSE)

BENSHOFF: ...And president of the Nuclear Energy Institute Maria Korsnick urged hundreds of attendees to picture the future.

MARIA KORSNICK: In this clean energy future, hundreds of reactors, from the existing models that we have today to advanced reactors both large and small, dot the landscape.

BENSHOFF: In this world, 30 years from now, countries have averted climate disaster, says Korsnick, with the help of nuclear power.

KORSNICK: Nuclear is the key to unlocking a zero-carbon future.

BENSHOFF: This is a pump-up speech, but there are signs of a shift. Just a few years ago, nuclear power plants across the country were shutting down, sometimes years ahead of schedule, in favor of cheaper natural gas power. Now, in an effort to cut down on carbon emissions, this year the federal government began subsidizing nuclear plants in danger of closing to the tune of $6 billion. Assistant Energy Secretary Kathryn Huff told conference attendees that the Biden administration is committed to making nuclear a part of its climate agenda.

KATHRYN HUFF: It's still half of our carbon-free power, and it is the largest single source of our carbon-free and emissions-free power.

BENSHOFF: States are also leaning into nuclear power. In light of California's grid stability issues, Governor Gavin Newsom started exploring options to keep the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant open, which is otherwise set to close in a couple of years. More than half of U.S. states include nuclear power in their clean energy plans according to an Associated Press survey. Even coal-friendly West Virginia recently repealed its ban on nuclear power. Republican delegate Brandon Steele says the move is good for business and energy security.

BRANDON STEELE: If West Virginia can be a major producer, that serves the energy needs of the entire country and contributes to our national security.

BENSHOFF: His argument is not about climate change. During our conversation about nuclear power, Steele mentions coal more than two dozen times.

STEELE: It's a good complement to our coal-fired power. It's not a replacement. It's a complement.

BENSHOFF: West Virginia has zero nuclear reactors, but Steele says the hope is to get in on the ground floor of new technology. That means safer, smaller and, importantly, cheaper reactors currently under development. Nuclear disruptors with names like NuScale and TerraPower hope to crack that code. But Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety with the Union of Concerned Scientists, says that new technology has a long way to go to be competitive.

EDWIN LYMAN: The basic facts about nuclear power haven't changed. The technology is expensive. It has significant safety and security risks.

BENSHOFF: Risks most recently seen when Russia shelled one of the world's largest nuclear power plants in Ukraine earlier this year. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll also found more Americans support renewables than nuclear power. Jason Bordoff, director of the Center for Global Energy Policy (ph) at Columbia University, says some skepticism is warranted. But time is running out to avert climate disaster.

JASON BORDOFF: We are so far away from coming anywhere close to meeting our climate goals that I think we need all tools in the toolbox.

BENSHOFF: It's that dire timing that has helped push nuclear power back into the conversation. Laura Benshoff, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laura Benshoff
Laura Benshoff is a reporter covering energy and climate for NPR's National desk. Prior to this assignment, she spent eight years at WHYY, Philadelphia's NPR Member station. There, she most recently focused on the economy and immigration. She has reported on the causes of the Great Resignation, Afghans left behind after the U.S. troop withdrawal and how a government-backed rent-to-own housing program failed its tenants. Other highlights from her time at WHYY include exploring the dynamics of the 2020 presidential election cycle through changing communities in central Pennsylvania and covering comedian Bill Cosby's criminal trials.