The Nuclear Energy Renaissance Has Arrived | Opinion

California legislators voted this week to extend the life of their state's last remaining nuclear power plant. This comes after news that Japan, the site of the most significant nuclear disaster in recent history, will reopen previously mothballed nuclear plants and invest in next-generation nuclear technology. As policymakers struggle to curb skyrocketing energy prices and rising global temperatures, it appears that they are finally warming up to nuclear energy.

The twentieth century brought the dawn of the atomic age, and with it, the promise of a virtually unlimited source of energy. In his "Atoms for Peace" speech, President Eisenhower imagined a future where nuclear energy would "provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world." Yet, just a few decades later, unbounded optimism turned into fear and controversy.

In 1979, the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station experienced a partial meltdown, exposing residents in the surrounding region of Pennsylvania to radiation. No one died, but seven years later, the largest nuclear disaster in history occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant in the Soviet Union. Dozens of lives were lost and many more were impacted by the radiation released. Amid growing public outcry in the U.S. and around the world, the construction of new plants slowed dramatically, and the notion that nuclear power was the energy of the future faded away.

This decline accelerated after a tsunami struck the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan in 2011. Flooding from the tsunami compromised the power plants' safety systems, resulting in the meltdown of three out of its six reactors. Japan was forced to evacuate 160,000 people and bring in experts from around the world to contain the meltdown. (The Japanese government has documented only one death resulting from radiation released at Fukushima.)

Overnight, global opinion on nuclear turned from lukewarm to hostile. German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that her country would be the "first industrial country to abandon nuclear energy." Belgium and Switzerland moved to phase out their nuclear fleets, and Italy halted construction of new reactors. Many in the environmental community joined the chorus of condemnation, including the executive director of Greenpeace International, who declared, "Nuclear Energy Isn't Needed."

nuclear power plant
Evening sets on the San Onofre atomic power plant in northern San Diego County, south of San Clemente, California. David McNew/Getty Images

Weighing the costs and benefits of nuclear energy, a growing number of political leaders agreed that the price was simply too high.

But this summer, something changed. Governor Gavin Newsom suddenly reversed course on California's nuclear phase-out, proposing legislation to keep one of his state's last remaining plants open. Then, despite opposition from some environmentalists, California's legislature voted to extend the life of Diablo Canyon.

In Germany, where Chancellor Merkel's policy of abandoning nuclear had previously enjoyed broad support, public opinion has suddenly shifted in favor of preserving the country's remaining power plants; a recent poll found that 41 percent of Germans support using nuclear energy long term, while only 15 percent support continuing Merkel's phase-out. Most notably, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida recently announced that Japan would re-embrace nuclear energy, stating that nuclear energy is "essential to proceed with a green transformation."

What changed?

The answer is twofold. First, Russia's invasion of Ukraine sent a shockwave through global energy markets and dramatically increased energy prices. Many countries are grappling with the reality that their current energy infrastructure and supply chains are not adequate or secure. While renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, are becoming cheaper and more widely deployed, their unreliability and relatively small contribution to overall power generation simply cannot fill the gap—at least not now, and not without significant advances in battery storage.

Second, as concern over climate change grows, political leaders and policy experts now recognize that nuclear energy is an invaluable tool for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It's now well-documented that shuttering nuclear plants results in higher greenhouse gas emissions, and not only is nuclear energy carbon-free, it is also a source of baseload power, meaning it is reliable and better suited to replace fossil fuels.

Yet, unjustified fears over the safety of nuclear power remain. Overall, nuclear is considered one of the safest forms of energy, causing fewer deaths annually than even wind energy. Any high-profile accidents are the exception to the rule; nuclear is incredibly safe and getting safer.

As leaders around the world work to address the threat of climate change without sacrificing their energy security, nuclear power is emerging as the obvious solution. The risk of pursuing nuclear energy is far less than the risk of giving up on it. Protecting existing plants and investing in next-generation nuclear technologies are vital steps toward ensuring a more secure and sustainable future.

A nuclear energy renaissance, much like what President Eisenhower envisioned all those years ago, is now on the horizon. No country understands the risks and rewards of this energy source better than Japan, which is now choosing to embrace it. The rest of the world must follow the lead of Japan, California, and everyone else who is finally recognizing we need more nuclear energy—not less.

Quill Robinson is the vice president of government affairs at the American Conservation Coalition (ACC). Follow him on Twitter @QuillRobinson.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.