Dec 14, 2020 - Energy & Environment
Column / Harder Line

Climate change boosts support for divisive tech

Illustration of a nuclear power plant tower with steam in the shape of a white flag

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Julian Brave NoiseCat, an expert at a progressive think tank, doesn’t like nuclear power, but he’s willing to support it because of climate change.

Why he matters: NoiseCat personifies a shift in mindset among individuals, corporations and governments that’s set to accelerate under President-elect Joe Biden: The urgency of climate change is compelling support for controversial technologies.

What he’s saying: NoiseCat says his mindset has shifted in two areas: Nuclear power, which emits zero carbon, and technology that captures carbon dioxide from facilities' emissions.

“There’s a common but often unacknowledged contradiction wherein activists like me insist that climate change is an existential crisis at the same time as we argue that specific political, legislative and technological pathways are off limits,” said NoiseCat, vice president of policy and strategy at Data for Progress.

  • “If we accept the former point, the latter point is untenable. You don’t tell the firefighters they can’t use ladders and fire retardant when your building is ablaze,” he said.

The big picture: The United Nations, the International Energy Agency, and most scientific and technical experts say nuclear power and carbon capture technology are essential to reach global goals to neutralize heat-trapping emissions by mid-century.

  • This is in addition to — not in replacement of — drastic increases in renewable energy. Citing those experts, Biden’s climate plan supports the tech too.

How it works:

  • Nuclear power plants provide more than half of America’s carbon-free electricity, but several are or already have shut down prematurely due to economic pressures. Big unresolved criticism also remains--like how to permanently store radioactive waste.
  • Carbon capture tech is essential to more cleanly produce cement, steel and other industrial material our world lives on. It's also critical for new natural gas and coal plants, especially in Asia. But it’s prohibitively expensive, and it could support continued fossil-fuel extraction by reducing the consequences of those fuels.

Driving the news: These technologies have gained bipartisan support in Congress and states.

On Capitol Hill, several pieces of recent legislation are candidates for consideration next year (and some may even pass before year's end). The incoming administration will likely be looking for bipartisan policies that can pass a closely divided Senate.

  • A Senate committee early this month approved the first-ever legislation giving federal subsidies to existing nuclear plants that may shut down before federal licenses expire.
  • “Preventing our nuclear fleet from shutting down should be an urgent call on all of us if we are serious about climate,” Sen. Cory Booker (D.-N.J.), said at the hearing.
  • Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), chairwoman of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, told me last week she could support such legislation if it was paired with more support for renewable energy, a position held by other progressives and environmental groups.
  • Two bipartisan bills supporting carbon capture are also being introduced, one on expanding an existing tax credit and another bolstering infrastructure.
  • “We’ve done education across the Congress and especially in the Democratic caucus so there isn’t such a knee jerk reaction to carbon capture,” said Castor, “because we are going to need it.”

Eight states have passed 2050 zero-carbon electricity targets, starting with California in September 2018 and including Arizona last month, according to the Clean Air Task Force, an environmental group.

  • These targets, which indicate that nuclear power and carbon capture would qualify, are a significant shift after years of states passing standards that mandate only renewable electricity.
  • Corporations have similarly broadened their goals, the environmental group found.
  • Five states have passed legislation in recent years either explicitly or implicitly subsidizing economically struggling nuclear power plants.
  • Influential environmental groups that don’t support nuclear power, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and Sierra Club, sometimes endorsed state legislation when it also included renewable energy.

But, but, but: Significant opposition persists, especially among progressive and indigenous interests. More than 300 groups, mostly local or smaller ones, expressed their opposition in a letter sent to Senate Democrat leaders last week.

The intrigue: NoiseCat said he’s talked with other progressive experts whose views are similarly evolving like his, but he chose his words carefully with me because “some of these policy and tech questions have become so taboo,” NoiseCat said.

  • Concerns are legitimate and can be personal, NoiseCat says. For him, a member of the Canim Lake Band Tsq'escen in British Columbia, Canada, it’s what he calls the nuclear industry’s “horrific history of polluting indigenous communities here in the U.S.”

The bottom line: “But at the same time,” NoiseCat says, “it makes no sense to take existing nuclear off the table at the precise moment in geological history that we need to be rapidly reducing emissions from our energy system.”

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