In its report last month, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stressed the lateness of the hour. It explained that if countries want to prevent the planet from warming more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, they must reduce current greenhouse emissions 60 percent by 2030 — or in 12 years. The report noted such an achievement would require action at a speed and scale with “no documented historical precedent.”
As it is, the planet appears on track to see an average increase of 3 degrees (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) or more by the end of the century. And that is if countries meet their commitments under the Paris climate agreement. As the report warns, the difference is huge, the increase in warming unleashing far more ruin in the shape of such things as droughts, floods, wildfires, famine, refugees, rising seas.
These “sobering realities” got the attention of the Union of Concerned Scientists, as told in a recent post by its president, Ken Kimmell. He cited the IPCC assessment as context for his organization’s new report, “The Nuclear Power Dilemma: Declining Profits, Plant Closures and the Threat of Rising Carbon Emissions,” released two weeks ago. He urged “that we keep an open mind about all of the tools in the emissions reductions tool box — even ones that are not our personal favorites.”
That means nuclear power, the target of much criticism yet also more than one-half of all the country’s clean energy supply. In Ohio, the Perry and Davis-Besse nuclear power plants account for 90 percent of the state’s clean energy.
Those two plants, along with two in Pennsylvania, have been slated to close. The moves are part of a trend, nuclear plants finding it difficult to compete in an era of abundant and cheap natural gas. The marketplace fails to value adequately their contribution in avoiding the harm of fossil fuels. A half-dozen nuclear plants have shut down in recent years.
The Union of Concerned Scientists supports a “proactive policy,” as Ken Kimmell puts it, to preserve existing nuclear power plants. That doesn’t diminish the need for expanded energy efficiency, solar and wind power, energy storage and grid modernization. What the report rightly recognizes is that responding to climate change gets much more difficult if it includes covering the loss of clean nuclear generation. One report concluded that for renewable energy sources, it would be the equivalent of going back 25 years.
The report acknowledges the flaws in nuclear power while emphasizing the hard choice: Better nuclear, in view of the climate change challenge, than the most likely substitutes, carbon-emitting natural gas or, worse, coal.
The best approach according to the report would be a nationwide carbon tax or low-carbon electricity standard. Neither is politically feasible now. Thus, the report sees the task falling to states, as Illinois, New York and New Jersey already have done. They have adopted policies to route financial assistance to nuclear power plants, leveling the playing field, or providing a lifeline to keep operating.
A similar plan has been proposed to Ohio lawmakers. Unfortunately, they have not acted. Perhaps the voice of the Union of Concerned Scientists will help to persuade. Climate change is a reality, ever mounting greenhouse gases promising greater degrees of harm. Easing those consequences won’t happen without dramatic progress. For now, it matters that nuclear plants keep delivering power.