A new bill in the North Carolina Senate could pave the way for more nuclear power in the Tar Heel State. As the threat of climate change hovers over us, supporting this legislation is more important than ever for environmentally minded North Carolinians.
Senate Bill 678 would revise existing state laws that require utility companies to supply 12.5% of their energy from renewable sources or energy efficiency measures. It would change language mandating “renewable energy” to “clean energy,” explicitly including nuclear energy. In addition, the bill would make it easier to build new nuclear energy projects. When reviewing applications for new power plants, the Public Utilities Commission has historically only assessed projects based on a few factors: fuel diversity and expected operating costs. Now, under this proposal, the Commission would also assess projects’ “power quality,” “capacity,” and “operating, maintenance, and decommissioning costs.” These new assessment factors would make nuclear energy more competitive with other clean energy sources like solar.
This shift may seem like a natural win for environmentalists seeking to support carbon-free energy production, but many N.C. environmental groups are already stating their opposition to this proposed legislation. Organizations like the Environmental Working Group have filed a statement to the Commission, arguing that nuclear is “commercially unavailable” and that the legislation relies on unproven technologies that would potentially fail to meet the 2050 deadline for a 70% cut in carbon emissions. In addition, environmentalists express concerns about the cost of nuclear construction and deployment.
These concerns are unfounded, and environmentalist opposition to nuclear energy will only slow progress on decarbonization. Currently, 33% of energy supply in North Carolina is from nuclear, and there are already proposals underway to expand these “unfounded” nuclear technologies, like small modular reactors (SMRs). There is nothing unfounded or unrealistic about nuclear energy in North Carolina, and its existing foothold in the state will only make its expansion easier than less-established energy sources, like solar and wind.
Another reason environmentalists should support nuclear energy and its expansion in NC is its almost non-existent environmental impact. It is a carbon-free energy source. It is the most land-use efficient energy source. Solar energy, in fact, uses 34 times as much land per unit of energy as nuclear energy. This land-use efficiency reduces the amount of green space that must be altered to build a new project, preventing sprawl into rural communities or important ecosystems. In addition, it has the smallest effect on natural wildlife compared to other clean energy sources, protecting biodiversity and preventing the death of important wildlife species. Wind energy can harm local bird populations, and the land-use requirements of solar may threaten natural habitats of protected species.
Beyond its environmental benefits, nuclear energy ought to appeal to North Carolinians from all economic brackets as a powerful engine for job creation and economic growth. Nuclear power plants can employ up to 7,000 people at peak construction, and their salaries are typically higher than other electric generation jobs. Incentivizing new nuclear energy jobs in N.C. could be a great opportunity to expand economic opportunities for people of all skill levels, while connecting clean energy and environmental protection with economic prosperity.
If NC environmentalists are serious about climate change, they should rally in support of this legislation, ensuring that nuclear energy can be readily deployed in the fight to reduce carbon.