Events in Ukraine threaten nuclear’s power to address climate change

Ernest Moniz discusses the implications of Russia’s actions for nuclear energy’s role in climate action with Andrea Mitchell.

On August 11, the Energy Futures Initiative’s (EFI’s) CEO Ernest Moniz said on MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell Reports that unfolding events in Ukraine threaten the ability of nuclear power to address climate change. Nuclear power is at the forefront of international politics with Russia’s control of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station in Ukraine. The New York Times reported breaking news that equipment on the grounds of the power station was damaged by shelling, and Russia and Ukraine are blaming each other for risk of catastrophic nuclear accident.

“There is no doubt that Russia is to blame for having converted this Zaporizhzhia plant, the largest nuclear plant in Europe, essentially into a military base,” Moniz said. He stressed this is a novel situation that a country with highly developed nuclear infrastructure has become a war zone.

Although Russia’s actions at the Zaporizhzhia power plant have gained international attention, Moniz said few note the country’s nuclear ambitions.

“Russia has, and still aspires, to be one of the major nuclear suppliers to a growing nuclear power industry globally, especially as nuclear power expands to address climate change issues,” Moniz said.

A nuclear accident would not only inhibit Russia’s aspirations to be a nuclear powerhouse, but it could disturb advancement toward clean energy by lowering support for nuclear energy at large. Moniz remarked that Russia has the power to discredit nuclear as an energy source by inciting a catastrophic accident. A nuclear incident in Ukraine “will have an enormous chilling effect on the role that nuclear power can play in addressing climate [change],” Moniz said.

EFI’s first report in 2017 highlighted the role of nuclear energy in climate change risk mitigation. The report underscored that as a zero-emissions electricity source, nuclear power is foundational to augmenting clean energy production.

Yet, there are still opponents of nuclear energy, as shown by efforts to close nuclear power plants, including Diablo Canyon Power Plant in California. Moniz penned an op-ed in 2021, with fellow former Energy Secretary Steven Chu, urging Diablo Canyon’s continued operation and emphasizing its importance for meeting California’s climate goals. His op-ed continues to be cited in the news.

Nuclear plants have taken additional safety measures and are running with minimal risks to the public, Moniz said in a 2021 NPR interview. There is further recognition that renewables, like wind and solar, are still developing and must be supplemented by other low-carbon energy sources.

Although nuclear energy is increasingly part of the clean energy transition, future nuclear disasters could disrupt this progress and negatively impact climate action, as Moniz said.

— Jaycee Scanlon, Communications Fellow

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