Energy & Environment

The Political Sabotage of Nuclear Power

Abundant, emissions-free energy was once the promise of a nuclear-powered future. What happened?


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Once upon a time, America embraced nuclear power as the future of energy. Today it accounts for a mere 18 percent of the nation's electricity generation, while fossil fuels remain dominant at 60 percent. Why did nuclear fail to take off? 

From 1967 to 1972, the nuclear sector experienced significant growth, and 48 new nuclear plants were built. But in March 1979, a meltdown at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, which resulted in no casualties and no lingering environmental damage, spooked the entire nation and empowered anti-nuclear activists.

"After Three Mile Island, what was considered to be in the best interest of the public was just reducing risk to as low as possible," says Adam Stein, director of the Nuclear Energy Innovation Program at the Breakthrough Institute. "It resulted in a huge volume of regulations that anybody who wanted to build a new reactor had to know. It made the learning curve much steeper to even attempt to innovate in the industry."

After the incident, the momentum behind nuclear reactor construction tapered off and no new reactors were built for the next two decades. Nowadays, the landscape remains unchanged: The federal government makes permitting arduous, while many states impose severe restrictions on new plant construction and force operational ones to shut down prematurely. 

For example, take Indian Point Energy Center, the largest nuclear plant in New York State. In 2007, anti-nuclear activists targeted the plant, which provided a quarter of downstate New York's electricity. Their cause gained significant traction with the support of New York state attorney general—and future governor—Andrew Cuomo, who believed the nuclear plant was "risky." 

Cuomo promised to usher in a new era of clean energy for New Yorkers. His moves against Indian Point garnered support from fellow Green New Deal advocates, including Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D–N.Y.), as well as environmental groups. 

The plant eventually closed in April 2021, but there was "a gulf between intentions and results," explains writer Eric Dawson, co-founder of Nuclear New York, a group fighting to protect the industry. The closure of Indian Point increased New York's carbon emissions. State utilities had to make up for the loss of energy by burning more natural gas, resulting in a 9 percent increase in energy-related CO2 emissions. At the same time, the state's energy prices also increased.

This outcome isn't unique to New York. Germany also opted to phase out nuclear power, betting on wind instead. Electricity from windmills increased, but so did the country's reliance on coal. In 2023, Germany emitted almost eight times the carbon per kilowatt-hour than neighboring France, which still gets the majority of its electricity from nuclear and less than 1 percent from coal. 

According to Dawson, nuclear power is "the most scalable, reliable, efficient, land-conserving, material-sparing, zero-emission source of energy ever created." Wind and solar aren't as reliable because they depend on intermittent weather. They also require much more land than nuclear plants, which use about 1 percent of what solar farms need and 0.3 percent of what wind farms require to yield the same amount of energy. 

The economics of nuclear power are undoubtedly challenging, but its advocates say that's primarily because of its thorny politics. The headache of building a new power plant is vividly exemplified by Georgia's Plant Vogtle. The first U.S. reactor built from scratch since 1974, the project turned into a nightmare scenario: It took almost 17 years from when the first permit was filed for construction to begin, it cost more than $28 billion, and it bankrupted the developer in the process. 

Nuclear regulation is "based on politics and fear-mongering and a lack of understanding," explains Indian Point's vice president, Frank Spagnuolo. If they aren't shut down, he says, power plants such as Indian Point could safely continue to provide clean energy for decades. 

Despite the opposition, there remains some hope for the future of nuclear energy. Companies are actively developing next-generation nuclear technologies, such as small modular reactors and molten salt-cooled reactors, to minimize the risks associated with nuclear meltdowns and explosions. And some former nuclear opponents have become advocates, acknowledging it as a vital source of clean energy. The converts include the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and even Rep. Ocasio-Cortez. The Biden administration has also demonstrated support for nuclear power, with the Department of Energy projecting a tripling of nuclear energy production in America by 2050. 

Anti-nuclear activists, environmentalists, and politicians have crippled the only truly viable form of clean energy. But the long nuclear power winter might finally be coming to an end in America.

Photo Credits: Louis Lanzano/Polaris/Newscom; Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/Newscom; JB NICHOLAS/Splash News/Newscom; Erik Mcgregor/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Erik Thomas/NY Post/MEGA/Newscom/DBNYC/Newscom; Pool/ABACA/Newscom; Jon G. Fuller/VWPics/Newscom; imageBROKER/J. Ehrlich/Newscom; */Kyodo/Newscom; RICHARD B. LEVINE/Newscom; FRANCES M. ROBERTS/Newscom; Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Newscom; MOURAD ALLILI/SIPA/Newscom; Pacific Press/Sipa USA/Newscom; Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/Sipa/Newscom; Michael Siluk/UCG/Universal Images Group/Newscom; Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Joseph Sohm/Universal Images Group/Newscom; KEVIN DIETSCH/UPI/Newscom; ROGER L. WOLLENBERG/UPI/Newscom; Utrecht Robin/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; Dick Darrell/Toronto Star/ZUMA Press/Newscom; St Petersburg Times/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; Ron Adar, M10s/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; Reginald Mathalone/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; Hans Pennink/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; Paul Hennessy/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; Antti Yrjonen/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Brittany Murray/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Meghan McCarthy/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Dan Herrick/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; Nuclear Regulatory Commission, CC BY 2.0 DEED, via Wikimedia Commons; Library of Congress/Bernard Gotfryd; Jmnbqb, CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED, via Wikimedia Commons; Truzguiladh, CC BY-SA 2.5 DEED, via Wikimedia Commons; Georgia Power; Edibobb, CC BY 3.0 DEED, via Wikimedia Commons; Michael Barera, CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED, via Wikimedia Commons; Ken Lund, CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED, via Wikimedia Commons; Z22, CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED, via Wikimedia Commons; Ron Sachs—CNP for NY Post/CNP/Polaris/Newscom

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