Even for a news outlet whose analyses of cutting-edge technologies are often flawed, a recent New York Times article by columnist Farhad Manjoo was exceptionally misguided. Titled "Nuclear Power Still Doesn't Make Sense," it is, in fact, the article that doesn't make sense.
Manjoo does recognize that nuclear power is important now, citing the aftermath of Russia's invasion of Ukraine: "Germany, which shut down many of its nuclear plants in the past decade while building natural gas pipelines to Russia, now faces a deep energy crunch. It has had to burn more coal to keep the lights on," which is also true of other European countries.
But his article's basic thesis is that renewables have made continuing reliance on nuclear energy unnecessary, given its costs, lead times and safety issues. That assertion is wrong on all counts. Intermittent sources of energy (wind and solar) cannot adequately provide continuous generation. And nuclear is costly and cumbersome only because for 50 years public opinion and government policy have discouraged private investment in the field.
Let us consider Manjoo's misapprehensions one by one.
First, wind and solar are neither zero-emission technologies nor resource efficient. Nor do they offer reliable, continuous generation of power. A single wind turbine needs about 1.5 acres of area, and its components require the mining and production of thousands of tons of materials, including some elements in short supply due to their use in batteries.
Solar is not much better, and solar and wind turbines have significant environmental consequences when end-of-life disposal is needed. Solar produces 10,000 times the waste of nuclear, and wind generates 500 times the waste of nuclear, including abandoned infrastructure and all the toxic substances that end up in landfills.
But the primary limitation of wind and solar is their intermittency. Demand fluctuates but is not intermittent. This was vividly illustrated by the catastrophic West Texas freeze in 2021 when renewable power sources and natural gas equipment failed. And the alternative to this is not, at least for the near future, energy storage in batteries.
It is already challenging just to manufacture enough batteries for electric vehicles. Not only is it unlikely that we could meet the demand for key minerals such as lithium, graphite, nickel and rare-earth metals, but many of them come from hostile or unreliable places — such as China, Mongolia, Congo and Bolivia — leading to an unpredictable supply.
Even without these limitations, the costs of utility backup would significantly boost the effective cost of wind turbines (and solar fields). Also, the environmental effect of battery production is significant and would offset renewables' advantages.
Manjoo's second assertion is that nuclear cannot be economically deployed, allegedly due to obsolete designs and processes. But even without new designs, nuclear has major advantages. Over the lifecycle of power plants — which includes construction, mining, transport, operation, decommissioning and disposal of waste — per quantity of energy, the greenhouse gas emissions from nuclear power are impressively low — 1/700th those of coal, 1/400th of gas and one-fourth of solar. Nuclear also requires 2,000 times less land than wind and nearly 400 times less than solar.
For any given power output, the amount of raw material used to construct a nuclear plant is a small fraction of an equivalent solar or wind farm. Putting it another way, nuclear power generation is far more efficient.
But far greater benefits could come from new nuclear technologies, including advanced small modular reactors (SMRs) and micro reactors, among others. SMRs and micro reactors can be constructed largely in assembly-line facilities according to standardized designs, drastically reducing the $10 billion, 10-year planning and implementation cycle for traditional large nuclear plants.
The U.S. Navy is a good role model: Nuclear plants now power 166 surface vessels and submarines, with a nearly flawless 68-year operating history. Even including the Chernobyl disaster, human mortality from coal is 2,000 to 3,000 times that of nuclear, while oil claims 400 times as many lives.
The United States could set an example for the world with the ultimate infrastructure project: building and deploying advanced nuclear power plants that painlessly accelerate our decarbonization.
Henry I. Miller, a physician and a molecular biologist, is a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. Andrew I. Fillat has worked for technology venture-capital and information-technology companies. They were undergraduates together at M.I.T.