Renewed enthusiasm for nuclear energy is plastering the headlines. The United States’ current network of 92 reactors generates 50.4% of the national share of carbon-free electricity. Once derided for producing radioactive waste and subjected to fear over nuclear meltdowns (both the Chernobyl disaster and Three Mile Island remain strong in public memory), the industry is being rebranded as—if not a silver bullet—a powerful and reliable alternative to greenhouse gas-emitting power plants.
Are they right? And what might this mean for communities with environmental justice (EJ) concerns?
Nuclear Power and EJ Implications
Advocates have a strong case that nuclear energy could help us transition to clean energy. Unlike solar and wind, nuclear energy is neither dependent on weather conditions nor constrained to specific operating hours. But like solar and wind, nuclear fission (the process of splitting uranium atoms to create energy) is a zero-emissions energy source.
Sadly, studies highlight the racial gap between who causes air pollution and who breathes it. Burning fossil fuels has adverse health impacts: cancer, respiratory issues, and neurocognitive defects. Fenceline communities near oil/natural gas production plants are susceptible to air pollutants like particulate matter and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbon molecules from soot. Take Louisiana’s infamous Cancer Alley: the 85-mile stretch between Baton Rouge and New Orleans accounts for nearly 25% of U.S. petrochemical production. Nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and hydrogen sulfide belch from over 130 plants, refineries, landfills, and factories. Unsurprisingly, the cancer risk skyrockets 12-16% for low-income and Black residents compared with white and high-income counterparts in Cancer Alley. This comes as low-income and Black residents are geographically closer to the toxic sources. Minority communities in Los Angeles County offer another sobering example.
Could the solution be pivoting to nuclear energy?
Not so fast. Nuclear energy brings its own set of unresolved EJ implications. Consider the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC’s) process for approving new and renewed nuclear plant licenses (check out the new chapter on Nuclear Energy in the Law of Environmental Protection for a detailed description). NRC maintains “cradle-to-grave” regulation over nuclear plants, with public health and safety as its primary concern. Prior to submitting a renewal application, an applicant must ensure that the current licensing basis of all currently operating plants provides an acceptable level of safety. An applicant must also evaluate potential environmental impacts (generally resulting from the plant aging), and outline how the effects will be managed over the 20-year license period. All steps in the licensing process must comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
Historically, surrounding community concerns have been dismissed in NRC power plant license renewals. Take, for example, the license renewals NRC issued to the Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station and Turkey Point Nuclear generating units 3 and 4. Environmental NGOs advocated against renewal claiming there was insufficient consideration of environmental risk. Yet, NRC moved forward approving both license renewals. Overall, the industry brings a horrific legacy of systemic environmental injustice, from racial and economic disparities in the distribution of fine particle pollution to the displacement of tribal nations to access uranium for mining and processing. The history of uranium mining on tribal trust lands is extensive, particularly in the Navajo Nation, which continues to address the EPA initiatives of abandoned mine cleanup and toxic uranium water contamination.
Room for Improvement
Renewed attention to nuclear energy makes this an opportune time to ensure the industry and its regulators commit to a just transition. NRC is taking initial steps to incorporate greater consideration of EJ in its decisionmaking processes. The Joseph Biden Administration’s 2021 Executive Order (EO) No. 14008 directed federal agencies to develop programs and activities to address the disproportionate health, environmental, economic, and climate impacts on disadvantaged communities. NRC is implementing EO 14008 through its existing NEPA environmental impact statement (EIS) screenings.
In April 2021, NRC staff conducted a systematic review to assess the agency’s programs, rules, and compliance with the EJ initiatives outlined in the Executive Order. The agency issued six recommendations, including revising the existing NRC EJ policy statement to enhance transparency and implementing formal mechanisms along the lines of a federal advisory committee dedicated to EJ matters. EJ and climate activists have yet to see if and to what extent the agency will adopt these recommended measures. NRC should also identify best practices for ethical mining that support cultural awareness.
Serious concerns remain about health risks associated with radioactive waste, power plant siting, and ongoing dismissal of public comment in NRC power plant license renewal processes. The number of nuclear reactors is likely to increase over the next few decades, and state governors are taking action to prevent the shutdown of existing nuclear reactors like Diablo Canyon, citing the need to provide constituents with reliable, low-carbon electricity. Congress has also jumped aboard the nuclear train with the Inflation Reduction Act’s 30% production tax credits for existing nuclear plants and $700 million to support uranium production capacity/research development. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act invests $6 billion through 2026 for a program to maintain the existing zero-carbon nuclear fleet.
Can the nuclear energy industry and regulatory officials ensure a truly just energy transition? While BIPOC communities have historically paid the price for “progress,” renewed interest in nuclear energy brings us to a crossroads. Through job creation, the promotion of energy independence, and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and other air pollutants, a cleaner and healthier environment is possible. It’s up to all of us to make it a reality.