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How nuclear power figures into a green energy future


When I say the words clean energy, you may think about wind turbines or solar panels. What about nuclear power plants? That $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill recently signed by President Biden, it sets aside money to invest in cleaner sources of energy. That includes wind and solar. It also includes nuclear energy. So what role can nuclear power play in helping the country reduce or even eliminate carbon emissions into the environment? We asked Ernest Moniz for his insights. Moniz served as energy secretary under President Obama. He's now president and CEO of the Energy Futures Initiative. And it's important to note he also currently advises and serves on the boards of three companies with stakes in the nuclear and energy sectors. When we talked, I asked him first for his reaction to the recent climate conference in Scotland and the commitment made by the U.S. at that gathering to reduce carbon emissions sharply.

ERNEST MONIZ: Well, it's very tough. I mean, we've taken a very tough objective for 2030, which is a reduction by about 50% - 50% to 52% to be precise - relative to 2005. And then, of course, for 2050, we've chosen for - to strive for net zero, meaning essentially no additional greenhouse gas load in the atmosphere. And these are tough. Certainly, to get there, we will absolutely need to continue the strong decarbonization of the electricity sector in particular.

FOLKENFLIK: What do you envision as the role of nuclear energy in our efforts to reach that goal you just described, the net-zero carbon?

MONIZ: Well, nuclear energy today is by far the largest source of carbon-free electricity in the United States. That's a fact. That's indisputable. You mentioned the infrastructure bill, and there were two pieces in there for nuclear. One of them was $6 billion to help keep running the existing nuclear plants. And that was in recognition of their contribution to addressing climate. And if nuclear is to be a significant contributor to continuing to address climate change, we will need to build on top of the existing fleet some of these new technologies.

FOLKENFLIK: I grew up in the beaches of Southern California not far from San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant. You recently co-authored an op-ed in the LA Times with another former energy secretary, Stephen Chu, arguing for keeping open California's last nuclear power plant, Diablo Canyon, which is set to close in 2025. Why do you think that's a good idea?

MONIZ: Well, first of all, we acknowledge right up front that the agreement to terminate Diablo Canyon in 2025, it was a very complex, multi-stakeholder process. And, you know, we're not naive in thinking that - in fact, we say it would be at least as complex to go back and to modify. However, we also say that, you know, even in these few years since that agreement was reached, a lot has changed. Just in the last years, I think we have come close to a consensus that wind and solar and batteries need to be complemented by what is often called firm power. That is power that's available anytime you want it. Wind and solar do suffer the vagaries of the weather, for example. In fact, just recently in the U.K., there was a dramatic problem by the winds in the North Sea being essentially stagnant for quite a while.

FOLKENFLIK: You know, there's also the question - people aren't crazy to be worried about safety issues involving nuclear plants, right. I mean, you think Three Mile Island, you think Chernobyl, you think Fukushima. These things happen. What do you say to address the concerns of Americans who think about the dangers, think about the fact that we haven't figured out how to deal with the toxic waste thereby created in sustaining some of these nuclear power plants?

MONIZ: Yeah. The safety issue, first of all, the Chernobyl and Fukushima and Three Mile Island are very, very different types of events. And without underplaying it, but Three Mile Island - it's important to recognize that there was essentially no exposure to the public. Obviously, it was a disaster as far as the reactor goes, and there was certainly occupational exposures. But since then, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the United States certainly has upped the ante in terms of safety. And there's every indication that the plants are running quite safely.

On the other hand, the radioactive waste, there is no way to avoid that. If you are doing a nuclear fusion plant that is fissioning - breaking up uranium to produce the energy, you will produce fission products. Those are lighter nuclei that are radioactive. They dominate the radioactive and heat profile of the waste for a couple of centuries at least. And there's no way to avoid that. So I agree that addressing the nuclear waste issue is extremely important.

I would mention - and this may sound like science fiction to some, but it's not - there have also been remarkable strides taken in the last years in nuclear fusion where you bring together very light nuclei and fuse them together, releasing an enormous amount of energy. And the fusion process of providing nuclear energy does not have that long-lived highly radioactive waste problem, nor does it have any risk to the public in terms of safety. So fusion would be a tremendous advance. I believe the scientific question about whether or not we can produce power plants will be answered in this decade. So I'm hoping that towards the end of this decade, we'll be able to demonstrate that process and begin to understand what the costs are in the real world.

FOLKENFLIK: That was former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, president and CEO of the Energy Futures Initiative. Secretary Moniz, thanks so much for joining us.

MONIZ: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.