Dunleavy: Nuclear is the Future

Adopting a nuclear power energy portfolio would contribute both to Biden’s human rights goals and his environmental to-do list.

by Hannah Dunleavy | 4/12/21 2:00am

The Biden administration has committed to a green energy plan powered by solar energy, but Biden’s human rights agenda in China may interfere with those goals: Because solar energy is to some extent dependent on products mined and manufactured in China, Biden may be forced to look the other way as China commits major human rights violations in order to maintain access to these critical resources. In doing so, Biden will fail to deliver on his promises to globally enforce human rights. To rectify this, Biden must shift his focus from solar energy to nuclear energy, allowing him to solve both this human rights dilemma and set the U.S. on the best path toward clean energy.

Admirably, Biden has made efforts to deviate from his predecessor’s policies is his communicated commitment to human rights, promising the American people that he will restore human rights to the forefront of America’s foreign policy agenda. His administration has so far condemned China for committing genocide against the Muslim Uyghurs and enacted sanctions against Chinese officials in retaliation. Recently, secretary of state Antony Blinken encouraged U.S. corporations to end any possible business connections to the Xinjiang region, the center of human rights abuses in China and home of the internment camps. 

At the same time, Biden is committed to expanding the green energy sector to accomplish 100% clean energy by 2035. To achieve his ambitious goal, Biden has pledged to decrease solar energy prices by 60%, called for the installation of 500 million solar panels and supported the Department of Energy’s allocation of $128 million toward new solar energy initiatives. According to Biden’s DOE, these policies could potentially result in solar representing 30% to 50% of a decarbonised electricity sector in 2035. 

However, with China producing the majority of the world’s materials needed for solar energy, the success of Biden’s solar energy plan relies heavily on China. If Biden continues to apply pressure on China for its human rights abuses, trade between the two countries may become disrupted — interfering with the U.S.’s polysilicon supply and making it impossible to accomplish his solar goals. The DOE acknowledges that recent reductions in the price of solar panels can be linked to China’s large-scale production of the energy alternative: China produces 60% of the world’s solar panels, 75% of the world’s semiconductor and solar grade material, and 80% of the world’s polysilicon. Using forced labor from the Uyghur people, Xinjiang alone produces almost half of global polysilicon. The U.S. government has already ended imports of cotton and tomatoes from the region, signalling that it is well aware of human rights abuses that take place there. Given the evidence that Chinese solar companies are utilizing forced labor, it is hypocritical for the U.S. government to feel comfortable importing polysilicon and other solar energy necessities from China, especially when alternatives to solar energy are accessible.

Turning away from solar energy wouldn’t have to be the result of anxiety over Chinese retaliation — instead, it can be a product of the Biden administration’s commitment to human rights and a careful analysis of the science that favors nuclear power to solar power. Nuclear power is an obvious solution. Not only is it a superior source of clean energy, but it also requires no foreign policy sacrifices. Nuclear power plants produce zero water or air pollution and require a fraction of the amount of materials, such as steel and concrete, needed for other energy sources like solar and wind energy. Solar, for example, requires up to 75 times more land than nuclear power. Nuclear is also the most reliable form of green energy — 2.5 to 3.5 times more reliable than solar energy. In 2020, nuclear energy operated at a capacity factor  — or the gauge of how fully an energy unit’s capacity is being used — of 92.5%, while solar energy operated at a capacity factor of 24.9%.

It’s true that the construction of nuclear power plants is slow and expensive. The high production costs arise from site preparation, engineering, manufacturing, construction and the required team of highly qualified specialists to create a nuclear power plant. But, once built, operation costs are low. In France, nuclear power accounts for 70.6% of the country’s electricity, yet, the average cost of electricity in France is 26.5% cheaper than the EU average. Additionally, some scientists project nuclear electricity costs will only decrease in the future.

Concerns over nuclear power plant accidents and meltdowns are overblown. Over the course of nuclear history, there have only been three significant nuclear power accidents — Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. Another concern is the buildup of nuclear waste. However, in over 50 years of nuclear energy, nuclear waste disposal has not yet caused any serious health or environmental problems, and the evidence suggests that deep geological disposal is safe and environmentally-sound.  Additionally, several countries, like France, Russia, China, and Japan recycle their nuclear fuel, as 90% of the fuel’s potential energy remains even after the typical five years of use. If the U.S. implements similar programs for recycling nuclear fuel, it could decrease the amount of waste and give scientists more time to improve on current nuclear fuel storage technologies.

Biden and his administration have made significant progress in establishing human rights as a key pillar of U.S. foreign policy. To solidify its commitments, he must create and implement domestic policy to back up his words. Biden cannot continue the precedent of presidents turning a blind eye to human rights to protect American economic interests. American solar power’s reliance on Chinese polysilicon should not be a motivator for compromise with China; instead, the U.S. should see it as one reason among many to abandon solar panels in favor of nuclear power.