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I don’t know how to break it to them, but Gov. Glenn Youngkin and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, perhaps the leading voice for the Democrats’ “progressive” wing, may have roughly the same position on a certain issue.
That issue is nuclear energy.
Youngkin, of course, is an enthusiastic cheerleader for nuclear energy. The highlight of the energy plan that he announced in Lynchburg last October was his call to put a small nuclear reactor — a new species of nukes that are small and assembled off-site — in Southwest Virginia.
That’s not particularly surprising in some ways. Historically, conservatives have always been more keen on nuclear power than liberals. What is surprising, then, are the relatively warm words that Ocasio-Cortez had for nuclear power after a recent visit to the site of the world’s second biggest nuclear disaster. On a recent trip to Japan, she went to the Fukushima nuclear plant, where the reactor was damaged by an earthquake and tsunami in 2011. It’s been classified as a “Level 7” event — the most serious — by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The 1986 accident at Chernobyl in what was then the Soviet Union and is now Ukraine is the only other Level 7 event, and it released more radioactivity. For comparison purposes, the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania is classified at Level 5.
Fukushima might seem an odd place to declare one’s support for nuclear energy, and technically Ocasio-Cortez didn’t do that. But she did post on Instagram a straightforward account of one of the consequences of the three meltdowns at Fukushima, beyond the hydrogen explosions and the release of enough radioactive xenon-133, iodine-131, cesium-134 and cesium-137 that there’s still an “exclusion zone” of about 12 miles around the stricken facility. That consequence is that Japan is burning more fossil fuels.
“After the explosion, Japan’s energy sources went from 30-40 percent nuclear to almost none,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “The flipside to that is the major drop in nuclear energy production has been made up in increased use of coal and fossil fuels, whose carbon emissions accelerate climate change.” For someone concerned about increasing levels of carbon in the atmosphere, that’s not a good thing.
While Ocasio-Cortez wasn’t exactly endorsing nuclear energy, she hasn’t ruled it out, either, and certainly seems to be suggesting that nuclear might be a better option than fossil fuels if renewables aren’t available. Even in 2019, when she and others were introducing the so-called Green New Deal, she specifically said she was leaving the door open to nuclear energy “so that we can have that conversation.” Since then, others on the left have been rethinking their skepticism of nuclear energy; if the goal is to create a carbon-free electrical grid, then maybe nuclear energy is the way to get there?
Bill Gates has become a vocal crusader about the dangers of climate change, authoring a book last year titled “How To Avoid a Climate Disaster.” One of his big solutions: nuclear power. Newsweek recently examined the changing politics in a piece entitled “The Left’s Changing Position on Nuclear Energy.” The Atlantic, whose readers probably skew left of center, examined the same thing in a recent story of its own. “Although only a handful of the mainline environmental organizations are openly ‘nuclear inclusive’ (for example, the Nature Conservancy), many quietly accept that nuclear power can be part of the climate solution, and perhaps a necessary part,” the magazine writes.
Indeed, earlier this month, a trio of senators introduced a bill to promote “new nuclear technologies” — one of them was Republican Shelly Capito of West Virginia but the other two were Democrats, Tom Carper of Delaware and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. The longer list of co-sponsors was also bipartisan, as well, bringing together an unlikely alliance of Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, and Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina. Of the entire list of 10 sponsors and co-sponsors, they are equally divided between Democrats and Republicans. This statement from Booker — rated by Progressive Punch as 97.62 liberal, making him more liberal than even Bernie Sanders — is typical of how some on the left are starting to see nuclear energy: “Advanced nuclear energy has a critical role to play as we race against the clock to reduce carbon emissions and address climate change.”
The nation’s most powerful advocate for nuclear power is a Democrat: President Joe Biden. That’s not how he’s usually identified, but that just goes to show how we as a society often misunderstand things. The Biden administration has quietly championed nuclear energy as a way to reduce carbon emissions. The 2021 infrastructure bill included at least $6 billion to promote nuclear energy. Last fall, the Department of Energy released a report on converting coal-fired plants to nuclear plants. In early March, the administration announced $1.2 billion in aid to extend the life of aging nuclear plants. John Kerry, now a special presidential envoy for climate issues, has been encouraging eastern European countries — which have relied heavily on coal — to convert those coal plants to nuclear plants, specifically the type of small modular reactors that Youngkin now wants to see in Southwest Virginia. “Nuclear energy, including small modular reactors, represent a critical tool in the fight against climate change, and can also enhance energy security and boost economic prosperity,” Kerry has declared. This may seem odd in the context of American politics, but not globally. In Canada, the governing Liberal Party is also investing in nuclear power. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government is investing $708 million (that’s counted in our greenbacks, not their loonies) in the same type of small modular reactors that Youngkin wants.
One countervailing trend: Germany’s left-of-center government shut down its last three nuclear plans over the weekend and is now out of the nuclear energy business. At one point, Germany had 36 nuclear reactors and generated one-quarter of its energy from them. It plans to replace that with renewables — but also more gas and coal, so Ocasio-Cortez’s point remains: The more a country relies on nuclear power, the less it will burn fossil fuels, at least for now. Those who pushed Germany to shut down nuclear insist this increased reliance on coal will be a temporary thing.
One traditional argument against nuclear energy is that it creates radioactive waste that doesn’t go away anytime soon. The half-life of plutonium-239 is a mere 24,110 years, meaning that any plutonium-239 created now will be half gone in 24,110 years. And yet here’s a curiosity: Even after it’s been used, spent nuclear fuel still retains more than 90% of its energy potential, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Youngkin has suggested that one way to get around the radioactive waste problem is simply to recycle it. That has horrified some nuclear critics — recycling nuclear waste might also open ways for some of it to be siphoned off for illicit purposes, such as making nuclear weapons, they warn. However, after her trip to Fukushima, Ocasio-Cortez spoke somewhat warmly about how France recycles radioactive waste, saying this is “increasing the efficiency of their systems and reducing the overall amount of radioactive waste to deal with.” Newsweek quoted a somewhat stunned nuclear energy consultant who says, “Recycling is a much more tricky issue than she makes it out to be, which is another sign for me. If she’s willing to make a good/bad, very simplistic determination on fuel recycling, and she decides it’s good, that is a stance that would have been seen as perhaps radically pro-nuclear in previous eras.”
The liberals who are for nuclear power may not be for it for the same reason that conservatives are. Pro-nuclear liberals see it as a way to reduce carbon emissions (and perhaps take up less land than wind and solar, which are very land-intensive). Pro-nuclear conservatives, such as Youngkin, are distrustful that renewables can carry the entire load of our energy needs; they like the security of a plant that’s running night and day, no matter the weather. And yet, even though they’ve traveled different roads, some politicians from both sides are winding up in the same place.
The point is, the politics of nuclear energy are changing. So are the dynamics of the industry. The Atlantic article made the case that the biggest obstacle to the deployment of nuclear energy is no longer opposition on the left — it’s the nuclear industry itself, which it depicted as being old and slow. Within the nuclear industry, though, is a new generation of innovators, and they’re the ones who are working on those SMRs. “The newcomers have engineering backgrounds but few if any ties to traditional nuclear utilities,” The Atlantic writes. “They think that climate change is a dire problem and that time is short.” They see themselves as innovators, in the same way that Apple upended the cellphone business or Tesla is disrupting the auto industry. This is the context that Virginia is now venturing into. Here, it’s Republicans — many of them from coal country — who are pushing these small modular reactors, but globally, it’s climate alarmists who are often their advocates (just not all climate alarmists, mind you).
Politics often produces odd bedfellows; here’s yet another unusual pairing.
Over the course of this week, I’m going to be devoting my columns to looking at the changing nature of the nuclear industry and how that relates to Youngkin’s quest to locate a small reactor in Southwest Virginia. Spoiler alert: None of this is designed to persuade people one way or another. Those who believe that it’s too dangerous to be splitting atoms, or believe that a nuclear reactor in Southwest Virginia amounts to making the region “a sacrifice zone,” will not find an argument to think otherwise. Likewise, those who are convinced that nuclear power is safe, reliable and necessary will not find an argument to dispute their confidence. I am not a scientist and bring no scientific expertise to such discussions. (Others may prefer the comfort of ideology alone to support their positions, pro or con.) I do, though, consider myself a pretty fair analyst of politics and the economy, so that’s where my focus will be.
In the coming days — unless breaking news such as a zombie outbreak interrupts the festivities — I will look at these issues: Does Virginia in general — and Southwest Virginia in particular — have the workforce to support a larger nuclear industry? Why does the U.S. Department of Energy believe that coal plants would make good sites for nuclear facilities? And, finally, what are some of the practical considerations that should be considered about the prospect of mining uranium in Pittsylvania County?
Tomorrow: Do we have the workforce to support expansion of nuclear power?