By Mark J. Perry
Despite competition from cheap natural gas and taxpayer-subsidized wind and solar energy, nuclear power has no equal.
Among sources of electric power generation, it dominates the production of carbon-free power and is likely to do so well into the future.
With nuclear power accounting for more than 60 percent of the country's zero-carbon electricity and a new generation of technologically advanced reactors on the horizon, the power source is playing a crucial role in the battle to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.
"The bottom line is that nuclear is the only 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week source of power that does not result in the emission of greenhouse gases," said Eileen Claussen, former president and founder of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. "It's hard to believe we can limit temperature increases and their associated impacts without a vastly expanded use of nuclear energy."
Nuclear power has an excellent safety record. In more than a half-century since the first commercial nuclear reactor began producing electricity, there has not been a single fatality or injury from a radiation-related nuclear power plant accident in the United States. No other major industry has a comparable safety record.
Nuclear power has endured because it has proved reliable, effective, and affordable.
In America, the performance of nuclear plants has improved significantly since 1990. In 2014, according to the Energy Information Administration, the capacity factor - how often a power plant delivers power to the electric grid - was 90 percent for about 100 operating reactors. The average capacity factor in 1998 was 80 percent, compared with 66 percent in 1990. Despite a reduction in the number of plants, the U.S. industry generated more electricity last year than it did in 2005.
With 439 operating reactors around the world, nuclear power is meeting the annual electrical needs of more than a billion people. Almost 70 reactors are under construction, including five in the United States, and 159 more are on order or planned.
In France, nuclear supplies 75 percent of the electricity, with enough to spare to provide almost a quarter of the electricity in Europe. But in China, the world's biggest carbon polluter, nuclear provides only 2 percent of the power. Coal remains China's energy mainstay, and its use is increasing throughout Asia.
Now, in the aftermath of the Paris climate agreement, nuclear power is expected to take on increasing importance. The climate accord calls for net carbon emissions to be effectively brought down to zero "in the second half of this century."
This would seem, at first glance, impossible. Until, that is, you consider the speed with which France and Sweden ramped up their use of nuclear power.
In a study of the growth of the French and Swedish nuclear programs from the 1960s to the 1990s, a team of European energy experts noted that if the world were to build nuclear reactors at the same rate as the French and Swedes did, then electricity from coal and natural gas, in a politically conservative scenario, could be replaced in 25 to 34 years. During this period, electric vehicles powered by nuclear-generated electricity could dramatically reduce the need for oil. These changes would have a huge impact on global carbon emissions and avert dangerous climate change.
The challenge to meet the new climate-control goals is daunting. If present trends continue, the world's population will increase to more than nine billion by 2040, with global electricity demand nearly doubling. Effectively meeting this dramatic rise in future energy demand while simultaneously trying to avert climate change is likely to be nearly impossible unless zero-carbon nuclear power is expanded to meet those goals.
Mark J. Perry is a professor of economics and finance in the School of Management at the University of Michigan-Flint. firstname.lastname@example.org