This is a time of burn-it-all-down politics, and climate change is right in there. Several decades of delay in facing the challenge, and denialism on the part of primarily Republican politicians, have spawned a backlash. Last week’s Democratic climate town halls were notable chiefly for the absence of old debates about carbon cap-and-trade, replaced with more prescriptive proposals (see this).
One issue that causes division within the ranks of climate-change activists is nuclear power. Though it doesn’t emit greenhouse gases, it does produce radioactive waste and carries the potential for rare but potentially catastrophic accidents.
Two candidates, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have different plans for nuclear that encapsulate the debate. Sanders not only rules out building new plants, but also wants existing ones to close. Warren’s position, somewhat garbled in her town hall appearance, is similarly down on new plants.
But she targets “100% renewable and zero-emission energy in electricity generation” by 2035, leaving room for existing “zero-emission” nuclear power even if, on stage, Warren talked of “weaning” the country off it.
The U.S. nuclear fleet is old. Of capacity currently online, 42% will be beyond its original 40-year operating license by the end of 2019, according to data compiled by BloombergNEF. Plants can apply for a 20-year extension and, if needed, a further one after that, provided they can demonstrate continuing safe operation. Here is how shutdowns would be distributed over the coming decades, based on age and various license-extension outcomes: