As global warming heats up, North Carolina needs to go nuclear. Recent state legislation requires Duke Energy to reduce carbon emissions by 2030 significantly, and nuclear energy will be the best alternative for clean, reliable, and affordable energy.
In June, North Carolina’s governor, Roy Cooper, signed House Bill 951. This law requires the NC Utilities Commission, the regulatory agency that oversees energy production, to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 70% from Duke power plants in the next eight years. The bill will require North Carolina to shift away from the seven existing coal-fired power plants and toward cleaner energy sources. This is a major step forward for environmental protections in North Carolina and makes the state a leader in the southeast on environmental issues.
However, the bill’s intentionally vague language allows the commission to decide what specific energy resources will be used. Unsurprisingly, Duke Energy and environmental groups are embroiled in a debate as to what the future of North Carolina’s energy policy looks like. Duke Energy suggests a mix that includes significant amounts of natural gas, hydropower, and nuclear energy. On the other hand, solar energy companies and state environmentalist groups like the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) are arguing for solar and wind to be the most significant piece of the energy pie.
North Carolina will need to take an all-of-the-above approach toward a clean energy future, and nuclear energy can lead the way in achieving our climate goals. Nuclear is a clean, zero-emission technology that can provide affordable and reliable levels that other alternatives currently cannot. Wind and solar are now subject to too many environmental variables, making them a necessary but insufficient energy source. To prevent rolling blackouts like the ones we’ve seen in Texas, North Carolina must further invest in nuclear energy as a primary source of electricity generation.
Additionally, as North Carolina, and the rest of the country, shift to clean energy, nuclear power can provide high-paying jobs to workers. North Carolina’s energy sector currently employs over 50,000 people, 7,821 of which work with fossil fuels. While these people are a relatively small portion of North Carolina’s population, policies that will affect their employment should provide a serious alternative that provides them with a similar quality of life and work experience. Nuclear energy, especially small modular reactors, can provide a similar work experience with increased pay for many people who would otherwise lose their jobs.
Opponents of nuclear energy, including those in North Carolina, often cite health and safety concerns. The horrific images of Chernobyl and Fukushima dominate our imaginations of nuclear energy — despite overwhelming evidence that nuclear power is a safe and clean energy source. Regarding death rates per unit of electricity generation, nuclear power is one of the safest options, even compared to hydropower, fossil fuels, and biomass. Nuclear energy results in 99.9% fewer deaths than coal power, which is just as safe as solar and wind. Advancements in small modular reactors are only making nuclear energy safer and addressing the financial and logistical concerns that large nuclear reactors often face.
For North Carolina to meet our climate goals, we must embrace nuclear energy. This will require a mass public relations campaign answering people’s concerns around nuclear, and environmental groups will have to concede that nuclear energy is a necessary element in our energy mix. If we can handle all that, the results will yield profound benefits for the state of North Carolina — for our environment, people’s health, and the economy.
Elijah Gullett is a contributor for Young Voices and the branch leader for the American Conservation Coalition’s Raleigh-Durham branch.