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The Air that We Breathe

By June 2, 2016January 31st, 2020No Comments

By: John Gilleland, Ph.D, Chief Technology Officer

Nuclear energy is by far the largest source of electric power that doesn’t emit any air pollution—and the only one that can produce large amounts of electricity 24/7. Nuclear plants have a major role in making electricity available in the United States and in protecting America’s air quality.

When Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1970, nuclear energy supplied less than 1.5 percent of America’s electricity. Today, 99 reactors in 30 states provide nearly 20 percent of America’s electrical power, replacing fossil-fueled plants that would have been built otherwise. Those fossil plants would have emitted massive amounts of carbon dioxide. In 2014 alone, nuclear energy facilities prevented 595 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, equal to the amount of carbon dioxide emissions from 135 million cars.

In the years since the Clean Air Act was passed, there has been growing recognition of the need to cut carbon pollution. In 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed a rule—the Clean Power Plan—to cut carbon pollution from power plants. However, the nuclear industry did not get full credit under the Clean Power Plan for being the largest source of carbon-free electricity in the United States. States can use new—but not existing—nuclear generation to help meet their Clean Power Plan goals. That means only the new reactors being built and those that are able to expand their capacity, described as an “uprate,” are given credit.

Although the national implementation of this plan is on hold, individual states have the opportunity to act. By volunteering to implement the plan—or portions of it—states can help ensure our country is on track to combat climate change. Tools exist to help with such decisions. Over the past year, the American Nuclear Society (ANS) has led efforts to ensure nuclear energy’s carbon-free benefits are recognized in the plan. Just recently, ANS published the Nuclear Policy in the States toolkit, which provides a comprehensive guide for states considering implementation.

Whether or not the Clean Power Plan itself is the right answer, humanity must come to terms with how we will deal with climate change. Decades ago in the United States, environmental groups led a fight against nuclear power without understanding its benefits. Since then, the fight against carbon pollution and the climate change it creates has been recognized as one of the most important challenges facing the planet.

For those of us at TerraPower, taking advantage of improved nuclear energy technology appears to be the best path forward—a conclusion we arrived at through purely scientific analysis of all the available options. Leading environmentalists and scientists agree with us; we all just want the air that we breathe to be as clean as nuclear power can make it.