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September/October 2022 issue.

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Exchange on Nuclear Power and Climate Change

Dear Editors,

Under the headline “Solving the Climate Crisis with Nuclear Energy Won’t Work,” Robert Pollin (D&S, March/April 2022) has presented his view that nuclear should not be part of a clean energy future. Instead, he concludes, “a high-efficiency and renewables-dominant energy infrastructure can deliver a zero emissions global economy within 30 years.” The facts say otherwise.

In the 1970s, in response to escalating oil prices, many came to believe that installing solar panels and more efficient appliances would be good for consumers. Government provided new, large subsidies for purchasing “renewables.” Today, we confront a very different reality: We have to replace fossil fuels, on which our industrial, high-tech economy is based, with carbon-free sources. That requires a different answer.

Germany and California have gone the route Pollin suggests, closing nuclear plants and expanding renewables. Now, having achieved 30–40% renewable electric output—still far from replacing all energy (e.g., transportation, heating, etc.) with renewables—they have the highest electric rates in the United States and Europe, respectively, and they are burning as much fossil fuel as before. The further growth of renewables has stalled, partly due to resistance from those whose land is affected, and partly by the declining value of added renewable investments.

Yes, solar panel and wind turbine costs have come down, but that is not all that has to be considered when placing them in the grid. Since their output is intermittent and weather dependent, they must be supplemented by large banks of batteries, along with more solar and wind installations to charge them, or by fossil fuel plants. The total system cost is far greater than the simple “levelized cost of electricity” would tell us.

Nuclear power, on the other hand, is reliable, scalable, and safe. Many readers may be surprised to learn that, except around Chernobyl, where fewer than 100 people were killed, no one has ever been killed or harmed by a nuclear power plant. (Contrary to popular belief, the meltdown of three reactors at Fukushima did not kill or even harm anyone, and the resulting radiation was below the normal background level.) Nuclear power provides nearly 20% of our electricity today and is online over 90% of the time. It can be expanded, as many countries are doing, and their experience is demonstrating that costs can be very much less than we have seen at the new plants being built in the United States; newer, smaller versions of reactors can be produced in factories and cannot meltdown.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has not changed this situation. While concerns, like those expressed by Pollin, have been raised, the actual potential for harm is minimal. Any highly radioactive materials are below ground, and the rest are encased in concrete or otherwise well protected.

Because of their cost, intermittency, and broad environmental impact, it is not possible to rely on solar and wind to power our society. France, Sweden, China, South Korea, and others—including the United States in the 1960–1980 period, have shown that nuclear can be safely and cost-effectively expanded to meet a societies’ power needs. There is, in reality, no alternative.

My colleagues and I have recently published Bright Future, a policy brief on energy policy in New York. See for further information.


Leonard Rodberg, Professor Emeritus of Urban Studies, Queens College/CUNY

Robert Pollin responds:

Leonard Rodberg claims that “nuclear reliable, scalable, and safe.” He further states that “the Russian invasion of Ukraine has not changed this situation,” and “the actual potential for harm is minimal.” Rodberg’s timing in making such assertions could not be worse. They come exactly when the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in Ukraine, the largest nuclear facility in Europe, is under intense siege. Thus, as of August 3, the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency Rafael Grossi stated that conditions at Zaporizhzhia are “completely out of control” underlying “the very real risk of a nuclear disaster.” Still more recently, on August 19, the BBC described “the growing concern over safety at the both sides accuse each other of shelling the area.” The BBC article quotes UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warning that “any potential damage to Zaporizhzhia is suicide.”

Rodberg’s reference to the 2011 nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima power plant in Japan neglects to acknowledge the costs of decommissioning the power plant after the disaster, though I cited this issue in my initial D&S article. A recent low-end estimate is $76 billion, with midrange estimates, as I noted in my initial D&S article, at $250 billion or higher. Moreover, a 2021 Science article reports that it is “going to take roughly 30 more remove intact nuclear fuel, recover resolidified melted fuel debris, dismantle the reactors and dispose of contaminated water.” I thus raise again a point I made in my original article: If the Japanese nuclear safety regulations proved to have been a failure at Fukushima, 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, as supported by Rodberg?

Rodberg raises the concern with renewable energy that I addressed in my original article—that solar and wind are intermittent energy sources, i.e., that the sun isn’t always shining and the wind isn’t always blowing at any given location. Rodberg writes that because of intermittency, “it is not possible to rely on solar and wind to power our society.” But he cites no evidence to support this claim. There are real challenges associated with solar and wind intermittency. But these will not become major concerns for delivering reliable energy supply around-the-clock for at least another decade. This is because the existing fossil fuel and, yes, nuclear power infrastructure will continue to provide a baseload of non-intermittent energy supply over the one to two decades, even as we incrementally phase them out. In addition, geothermal, hydro and low-emissions bioenergy are non-intermittent renewable energy sources that can increasingly provide a baseload of renewable supply.

Finally, over the next two decades, we can expect major advances in technologies that can store and transmit solar and wind power to meet consumer demand. The most recent survey by the U.S. National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) projects cost reductions for battery storage as ranging between 28% and 75% between 2020 and 2050. Given the recent experience with solar photovoltaic technology, in which costs fell by nearly 90% between 2010 and 2021, as well as the large-scale investments now moving into expanding and improving energy storage technology, even NREL’s higher-end 75% cost reduction projection could well turn out to be an underestimate.

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

“UN nuclear watchdog says Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia power plant in Ukraine ‘completely out of control’,” ABC News Australia, August 3, 2022 (; “Ukraine war: Russia rejects call to demilitarise Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant area,” BBC News, August 18, 2022 (; Dennis Normile, “Why cleaning up Fukushima’s damaged reactors will take another 30 years,” Science, March 4, 2021 (; Wesley Cole, A. Will Frazier, and Chad Augustine, “Cost Projections for Utility-Scale Battery Storage: 2021 Update,” National Renewable Energy Laboratory, June 2021 (; “Renewable Power Generation Costs in 2021,” International Renewable Energy Agency, July 2022 (; Julian Spector, “Investors are pouring money into grid storage startups,” Canary Media, September 17, 2021 (

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