Nuclear power remains the United States’ largest carbon-neutral source of energy, and in order to transition to a carbon-neutral economy by mid-century, we must increase our reliance on nuclear power. In contrast with the majority of environmental propositions to date, nuclear power has strong potential for bipartisan support, stemming from demands for carbon neutrality as well as demands for national security. As such, a revival in nuclear power is the only realistic way to bridge the political divide on climate legislation in the U.S. and catalyze an approach to the climate crisis that is proportional to its severity. 

Support for nuclear investment is diverse, and consequently politically viable in a divided congressional environment. Nuclear technology is pertinent in both the industries of nuclear power and nuclear weaponry, meaning that the benefits of nuclear investment are twofold. Interests in carbon neutrality and interests in nuclear deterrence and global non-proliferation are both satisfied by investment in nuclear power. According to every realistic estimate, nuclear power is essential to reaching carbon neutrality by mid-century and staying below a rise in temperature of two degrees celsius. Meanwhile, in order to remain at the forefront of global nuclear policy, the U.S. must build credibility by sustaining nuclear investment. This amalgam of political support is perfectly exemplified by recent bipartisan support for a bill from the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources for nuclear investment in energy and military applications.

Almost every Obama-era environmental regulation was fought to the bitter end by Republican congressmen, and President Donald Trump began his onslaught of environmental deregulation almost as soon as he was inaugurated. But that narrative isn’t holding true with nuclear power. Trump even claimed that the country must “reinvigorate the entire nuclear fuel supply chain,” claiming that the U.S. should pursue “national security and non-proliferation goals.” Obviously, Trump’s motives are rooted in national security goals, but the ends justify the means. Nuclear power is a bipartisan enigma, and in order to realistically reach carbon neutrality in the U.S., green energy goals must reorient around nuclear power. 

While the support for nuclear power is diverse and bipartisan, it isn’t quite broad enough to enter mainstream political views. Parroting of outdated arguments has trapped many politicians in an echo chamber of nuclear neglect. Even presidential hopefuls are stuck in this fallacy. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. and former Vice President Joe Biden all reject nuclear power as they confidently cite outdated evidence. The fact is that new technology in the industry makes nuclear power safer, cheaper and better for the environment than it was even a decade ago, and politicians need to wrap their heads around this change. The barriers to any significant deployment of nuclear energy aren’t technical or scientific, they’re purely political and social.

Some may argue against nuclear energy because of concerns about safety or cost-effectiveness. To start, nuclear incidents have been few and far between. With 17,000 cumulative years of reactor operation worldwide, only three major incidents have occurred.

Yet in the radioactive wake of Fukushima, political skepticism of nuclear power heightened, and nuclear legislation became taboo. The nuclear industry is still rebuilding its public image after nearly a decade of political neglect. But new nuclear technologies have undeniably made nuclear power a safer option, and political perceptions are slowly shifting as well. Due to growing demands for carbon neutrality and national security, accompanied by safer technologies, politicians are slowly regaining confidence in nuclear power. To bolster the credibility of nuclear energy, future nuclear legislation must include these new technological advancements that address the perceived concerns regarding safety and efficiency. This requires significant investment in existing reactor designs that tout increased simplicity, and thus increased safety and cost-effectiveness

If we’re serious about the significant reduction of carbon emissions, we have to be for the idea of nuclear power. If we’re serious about the maintenance of nuclear deterrence and international non-proliferation goals, we have to be for nuclear power. We need radical change and we need it now. Though green legislation is an extremely partisan issue, receiving almost no support from Republicans in Congress, the widespread political support for nuclear power makes it the ideal path forward for the U.S.

As a result of technological advances that boast increased safety and cost-effectiveness, nuclear power is now both economically and ecologically practical. Moreover, in this treacherous political climate, there’s no chance we can even begin to address our situation with partisan ideas. Nuclear power won’t single-handedly get us to carbon-neutrality by 2050, but it’s a giant leap in the right direction. We need to stop dreaming of a political utopia and play the hand we were dealt. In order to successfully address the climate crisis in the U.S., we must swiftly enact legislation that significantly invests in the next generation of nuclear power. 

Reid Diamond can be reached at reiddiam@umich.edu.

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