Solving the Climate Crisis with Nuclear Energy Won’t Work

By Robert Pollin | March/April 2022

This article is from Dollars & Sense: Real World Economics, available at

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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is—as of this writing, in late March—an ongoing calamity. As of now, it is impossible to predict how it might end, and what all its costs will be. We do know, as of now, that many thousands of people are dead, and millions of lives are being wrecked.

In addition to these most brutal consequences, the war must force us to rethink many issues that—with no exaggeration—reach to the core of how we can envision future prospects for life on earth. I will consider only one such question now. That is: What role should nuclear energy play in advancing a workable global climate stabilization project?

In the initial phase of its invasion on February 24, the Russian military seized control of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, which is located about 60 miles north of Kyiv in Ukraine. In 1986, when Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union, Chernobyl was the site of the most severe nuclear power plant accident in history. An explosion blew the lid off one of the plant’s four operating nuclear reactors. This released radioactive materials into the atmosphere that spread throughout the region. Despite this disaster, the other three reactors at Chernobyl continued operating until 2000.

The other three reactors did cease operating in 2000. And the site still houses more than 20,000 spent fuel rods. These rods must be constantly cooled, with the cooling system operating on electricity. If the system’s electrical power source were to malfunction, the spent fuel rods could become exposed to the air and catch fire. This would release radioactive materials into the atmosphere. Once released, the radioactive materials could again spread throughout the region and beyond, as they did in 1986. This is a low-probability but by no means a zero-probability scenario.

On March 3, the Russian miliary also took control of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, the largest in Europe. According to a March 4 report on NPR, “Russian forces repeatedly fired heavy weapons in the direction of the plant’s massive reactor buildings, which housed dangerous nuclear fuel.” All military actions at or near the plant create further danger of the plant’s operations becoming compromised. As with Chernobyl, this could then lead to radioactive materials being released into the atmosphere.

Nuclear disasters at both Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia are therefore active threats right now. In addition, the war is compromising the security systems that operate to protect both sites. The fact that both sites have become combat zones means that they are more vulnerable to attacks from non-state actors, including terrorist organizations of any variety. The aim of such organizations in breaching security at Chernobyl or Zaporizhzhya would almost certainly include gaining access to materials that would enable them to produce homemade nuclear weapons. At the least, they would be positioned to threaten the release of radioactive materials.

The Argument for Nuclear Power

In short, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has dramatized and intensified the dangers associated with operating nuclear power plants. But these dangers are nothing new. Yet, despite these real, unavoidable, and ongoing dangers, nuclear power still has a large number of strong proponents. Of course, these supporters include people within the industry itself, such as the shareholders and CEOs of nuclear power companies along with nuclear engineers, consultants, and employees operating the reactors. Such people have lots of money and careers at stake. But nuclear supporters also include many reputable people—a significant number of progressive commentators among them—who have nothing to personally gain from the nuclear industry.

This latter group of nuclear supporters base their advocacy on two points that need to be considered seriously. The first is inarguable: that we—the entire global community—have no choice but to truly take dramatic action now to combat climate change. It follows that we have to stop burning fossil fuels—oil, coal, and natural gas—to produce energy. This is because burning fossil fuels for energy generates carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, and these CO2 emissions are, in turn, the primary cause of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has now concluded repeatedly that to have any serious chance of moving onto a climate stabilization path, the world must cut CO2 emissions by roughly half as of 2030—less than eight years from now—and be carbon neutral by 2050. With respect to reaching these goals, nuclear power provides the important benefit of producing electricity in abundance without generating CO2 emissions or air pollution of any kind.

The second argument made by nuclear proponents is that expanding nuclear energy is imperative because of what they consider to be the major problems associated with renewable energy as the alternative source of non-CO2-generating electricity. In their view, renewable energy sources—starting with solar and wind power—will never be able, on their own, to establish an alternative energy infrastructure on a global basis that can reliably deliver an adequate supply of energy to compensate for the phasing out of fossil fuels.

The most widely respected advocate for these positions is James Hansen of Columbia University and formerly with the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. For decades, Hansen has been the world’s best-known climate scientist fighting for decisive action on climate change. In 2015, Hansen, along with fellow prominent climate scientists Kerry Emanuel, Ken Caldeira, and Tom Wigley wrote:

The climate system cares about greenhouse gas emissions—not about whether energy comes from renewable power or abundant nuclear power. Some have argued that it is feasible to meet all of our energy needs with renewables. The 100% renewable scenarios downplay or ignore the intermittency issue by making unrealistic technical assumptions. … Large amounts of nuclear power make it much easier for solar and wind to close the energy gap.

Hansen and his co-authors advocated building 115 nuclear reactors per year until 2050. This would mean that more than 4,000 reactors would be operating globally by 2050, an increase of nearly tenfold over the next 30 years relative to the 440 reactors that are currently operating globally.

Hansen’s perspective was strongly endorsed in the 2019 edition of the World Energy Outlook, published by the International Energy Agency, the most widely recognized source on global energy issues. The 2019 Outlook concludes that “Alongside renewable energy and [carbon capture] technologies, nuclear power will be needed for clean energy transitions around the world.” Similar views have been advanced most recently by progressive commentators such as Bhaskar Sunkara and Liza Featherstone, with Featherstone writing in Jacobin last September that “given the magnitude of the threat from carbon, the left must be willing to give serious consideration to a role for nuclear power as a way out of the climate apocalypse.”

Why the Nuclear Supporters Are Wrong

To be fair, the articles by Hansen, Sunkara, and Featherstone were all published prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. At the same time, their advocacy of nuclear power reflects a long-standing pattern of downplaying the range of fundamental problems that would be unavoidably attached to any large-scale global build-out of nuclear reactors. Indeed, within a few years of the 1986 accident at Chernobyl, the prevalent view throughout the world was that the risks associated with nuclear power were relatively small and manageable, when balanced against its benefits. This view was upended in the aftermath of the March 2011 nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan, which resulted from the massive 9.0-magnitude Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. While the full effects of the Fukushima meltdown remain uncertain, the most recent estimate of the total costs of decommissioning the power plant and providing compensation to victims is $250 billion.

Clearly, the safety regulations at Fukushima failed miserably. And remember that this happened in Japan, a high-income economy and the country that has suffered from the effects of nuclear power more than anyplace else. If the Japanese nuclear safety regulations proved to have been a failure, why should we expect that much stronger and more effective regulations will be enforced elsewhere in the world under a massive build-out of nuclear reactors, such as the 4,000-reactor global build-out advocated by Hansen? Presumably this massive build-out would include countries with weaker regulatory standards and much tighter public safety budgets than Japan.

This then raises the issue of costs more generally. In fact, according to the U.S. Energy Department, the costs of generating a kilowatt hour of electricity from nuclear energy are now more than twice as high as those from solar panels or onshore wind. Moreover, the costs of renewables, especially solar, have been falling sharply over the past decade, with further large cost reductions likely. By contrast, nuclear energy is on a “negative learning curve”—i.e., the costs of nuclear energy have been rising over time, in large part, though not entirely, due to the increased understanding that truly minimizing the risks of another Fukushima-like disaster entails billions of dollars in additional costs to bring a single new reactor online. This is why the huge multinational firm Westinghouse, which for decades had been the global leader in building nuclear plants, was forced to file for bankruptcy in 2017.

Even the International Energy Agency, in advocating for nuclear in its 2019 World Energy Outlook, could mount only a feeble case on its behalf. It estimated that, if the advanced economies were to forego nuclear energy altogether as a component of their clean energy transitions, concentrating instead on renewables, the result would be “5% higher electricity bills for consumers in advanced economies.” As a worst-case scenario, something like a 5% increase in electricity prices is clearly a trivial amount to pay to avoid all the fully understood costs and dangers that are unavoidably tied to nuclear energy.

The High-Efficiency and Renewables Alternative Works

There are indeed significant challenges to address in creating a global renewable-dominant energy system. But none of these challenges are insurmountable. This is especially true because, in fact, advancing a global clean energy infrastructure includes two central features, with investments to dramatically raise energy efficiency standards being just as important as expanding the supply of renewable energy sources. Building a high-efficiency energy system means, among other things, significantly upgrading the heating, lighting, cooling, and insulation equipment in buildings, greatly expanding public transportation systems, and producing much more efficient private vehicles. Nevertheless, even with high efficiency standards, people are still going to need to consume energy to light, heat, and cool buildings; to power cars, buses, trains, and airplanes; and to operate computers and industrial machinery; among other uses. High efficiency will therefore reduce, but by no means eliminate, the challenges of building a renewable energy-dominant infrastructure.

As we saw above, Hansen and other proponents of nuclear power cite the issue of intermittency with solar and wind power—that the sun isn’t always shining and the wind isn’t always blowing at any given location. This problem can be solved through continuing to make advances in battery storage and electricity transmission systems. It is also the case that other renewable sources—geothermal, hydro, and low-emissions bioenergy—are not intermittent. They can serve as supplemental energy sources in combined renewable energy systems.

Another challenge is to build renewable energy projects that minimize land-use impacts that would disrupt communities and natural habitats. Such concerns need to be addressed with great care and democratic decision-making. But as a general proposition, it is useful to start from the calculations of the Harvard University physicist Mara Prentiss that, with the United States as a high-efficiency economy, more than half of this necessary surface area could be provided through locating solar panels on rooftops and parking lots throughout the country. Beyond the space provided by rooftops and parking lots, solar energy sources using existing technologies could supply 100% of U.S. energy demand while consuming somewhere between 0.1% and 0.2% of additional U.S. land area.

A related issue is whether there will be sufficient supplies of the full set of raw materials that will be needed to rapidly expand the renewable energy sector. The short answer is “yes.” It is likely that some short-term bottlenecks will emerge with some of the required materials, in particular the chemical element tellurium, which is used to produce solar cells. But none of the likely shortages, including with tellurium, should be insurmountable. One solution will be to greatly expand the industry for recycling the needed metals and minerals. At present, average recycling rates for these resources are below 1% of the total supply. By contrast, the recycling rate for steel cans in the U.S. is now 71%. Increasing recycling rates for the minerals needed to produce renewable energy equipment to just 5% would go far to overcome any problems of supply shortages. In addition to recycling, opportunities will also emerge to economize on the level of minerals and metals necessary to produce solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries, as production technologies improve along with the rapid expansion of the industry. Substitute materials can also be developed for those materials that remain in short supply.

In advancing the global clean energy transition over the next 30 years, there can be a case for allowing the existing nuclear power plants that are well-functioning to continue operating through the course of their normal service lives. But continuing to operate these existing plants for the next one to two decades cannot be confused with a massive expansion of new reactors, when we know that a high-efficiency and renewables-dominant energy infrastructure can deliver a zero emissions global economy within 30 years.

is Distinguished University Professor of Economics and co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Seth Borenstein, “Explainer: What’s behind latest scare at Chernobyl Plant?” ABC News, March 9, 2022 (; Geoff Brumfiel, “What we know about Russia’s capture of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power complex,” NPR, March 4, 2022 (; Matthew Bunn and Anthony Wier, “Terrorist Nuclear Weapon Construction: How Difficult?” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, September 2006 (; James Hansen, Kerry Emanuel, Ken Caldeira, and Tom Wigley, ”Nuclear power paves the only viable path forward on climate change,” The Guardian, December 3, 2015 (; International Energy Agency, World Energy Outlook 2019, November 2019 (; Bhaskar Sunkara, “If we want to fight the climate crisis, we must embrace nuclear power,” The Guardian, June 21, 2021 (; Liza Featherstone, “Illinois Just Won a Big Green Jobs Victory,” Jacobin, September 21, 2021 (; Rachel Mealey, “TEPCO: Fukushima nuclear clean-up, compensation costs nearly double previous estimate at $250 billion,” ABC Australia, December 16, 2016 (; World Health Organization, “Radiation: Health consequences of the Fukushima nuclear accident,” March 10, 2016 (; U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Levelized Costs of New Generation Resources,” Annual Energy Outlook 2021, February 2021 (; Alicia Valero et al., “Material bottlenecks in the future development of green technologies,” Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, October 2018 (; “Ferrous Metals: Material-Specific Data,” Environmental Protection Agency, accessed March 23, 2022 (; Noam Chomsky and Robert Pollin, Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal (Verso, 2020).

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