Unbridled Energy: What a Coal to Nuclear Transition Could Mean for Kentucky
By Julian Colvin
In the current polarized political climate, one issue seems more unifying yet more covert than any other. While rarely a topic of public discussion, nuclear energy has enjoyed the support of each Presidential and Kentucky Gubernatorial administration over the past two decades, across party lines. Five years ago, Kentucky saw the fruits of this popularity when supermajorities in the General Assembly repealed a ban on nuclear power in Kentucky. Just this past year, Wyoming saw bipartisan support for nuclear power with Republican Senate Conference Chair John Barrasso linking arms with Energy Secretary and former Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm to usher in a new era of nuclear power in Wyoming. Forbes magazine proclaimed, “Wyoming to lead the coal to nuclear transition with new reactor.” This progress in Wyoming begs the question: why not here?
Kentucky currently leads the way on coal plant retirements. Around six gigawatts worth of coal-fired electric power along the Ohio River is set to come off the grid in the next decade. That’s enough energy to power six Louisville-sized cities. More efficient and safer sources of energy, government pressure, and utility companies’ carbon reduction goals all contribute to decreasing reliance on coal-powered electricity. The market has clearly decided against a revitalization of coal power, even in historically coal-dependent states like Kentucky. Although coal is on the decline, expensive and unstable natural gas and largely unreliable, inconsistent, and environmentally damaging renewables are set to replace it.
While renewable energy seems environmentally friendly, the space and mining techniques required to support renewable operations can be environmentally disastrous. For example, copper sulfide mining—used to extract materials necessary for some types of renewable energy production—is highly damaging to the environment and has the potential to contaminate water supplies. Additionally, renewables like wind and solar require 100 to 1,000 times as much space as nuclear and coal power to generate the same amount of electricity. Depending on solar and wind farms to replace coal power could potentially decimate thousands of acres of natural habitats and ecosystems. Solar and wind farms are not a feasible or environmentally friendly option to cover all or most of our energy needs.
Even without considering the potentially detrimental environmental impact of renewables, they simply aren’t reliable enough to support a state’s energy needs. Renewable energy depends on ideal weather, and inconsistent weather patterns can lead to inconsistent supplies of energy. While the renewable energy industry strives to store renewable energy in batteries, this method’s efficiency has not been proven and mining lithium for batteries is far more environmentally harmful and creates far more waste than nuclear energy. Renewable energy can be a great supplement to other baseload sources of electric power like coal and nuclear, but on its own, it is not sufficient to provide for all or even a large portion of our state’s electricity needs. These faults are more than theoretical—states that have switched to renewable sources are now dealing with these inconsistencies. In California, an overreliance on renewable energy sources has led to an unreliable energy grid. California’s dependence on renewables has led to increasing rates of blackouts in the past two years. If Kentucky replaces coal with renewables, it risks the same fate as California and potentially diminishes the dependability of the electricity that thousands of Kentuckians rely on.
Natural gas could also replace coal, but natural gas prices can be incredibly volatile. Electricity powered by natural gas also relies on a constant fuel stream, which in turn is subject to supply chain disruptions. In contrast, nuclear power plants can go years without refueling, making them more reliable, more secure, and cheaper to operate. Natural gas also releases far more carbon into the atmosphere than nuclear power does, in conflict with utility companies and government agencies’ carbon reduction goals.
Nuclear power is also far more efficient than natural gas, producing more electricity while requiring less maintenance to operate. In fact, nuclear energy is the most efficient source of electricity among current energy sources. Nuclear power has a 92.5% capacity factor, meaning a nuclear plant can run at 100% of its power capacity 92.5% of the time. That’s about 1.5 to 2 times more than natural gas and coal units, and 2.5 to 3.5 times more reliable than wind and solar plants. It’s no surprise then that as California continues to decrease its reliance on nuclear power, it faces increasing power outages.
Despite some states like California continuing to push for total reliance on renewables, the national conversation seems to favor nuclear power. In recent years, Wyoming, Montana, and Nebraska have taken up new pieces of energy legislation to move their states’ energy grids towards greater reliance on nuclear power. While Nebraska and Wyomingcreated improved tax structures for new, advanced reactors, other states like Montana supported measures like a feasibility study to affirm and support the state’s interest in nuclear power.
Wyoming has historically been one of the few states that sells electricity to neighboring states at a higher rate than they buy it. This energy surplus originated from Wyoming’s vast amounts of coal but is set to be replaced by nuclear energy. In contrast, California’s energy policies have yielded higher electricity prices, blackouts, and a dependence on other states for energy. California is currently the nation’s largest importer of electricity, relying on neighboring states for nearly 30% of its energy. Today, as the market moves away from coal, Kentucky has a choice between a California-style energy grid, prone to blackouts and increased electricity prices, and Wyoming-style progress towards a dependable, affordable, and exportable energy supply.
While the benefits of nuclear power are clear, the general public still maintains reasonable apprehensions about radiation, Chernobyl-style disasters, and core meltdowns. But these fears are misplaced. A Chernobyl-style meltdown in the United States is nearly impossible. Design flaws that were suppressed by Soviet agents in order to save face led to the Chernobyl disaster. Chernobyl was the fault of authoritarian government and a command economy, not nuclear technology. Even so, the other reactors at the Chernobyl power plant were updated to prevent another disaster and continued to operate for nearly twenty years after the accident.
The fatal design flaws that led to the Chernobyl disaster don’t exist in the United States’ nuclear reactor fleet. Our nuclear power plants’ safety standards are largely modeled after our nuclear submarines. Safety standards inherited from the Navy mean that even the slightest incidents are planned for. The worst disaster in U.S. history, Three Mile Island, didn’t lead to a single death or an increase in local cancer rates. To this day, nuclear power has a safer record than any other source of electricity, reporting fewer deaths and injuries per unit of electricity produced than any other source of electric power.
Kentucky should take an “all-of-the-above” approach to producing electricity, incorporating fossil fuel, renewable, and nuclear sources. While coal evokes memories of a bygone era of economic prosperity, the market has chosen a different path. Coal plants are closing left and right as states and utility providers like the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) are setting carbon reduction goals. Waiting for a revitalization of coal while foregoing nuclear energy is wildly impractical. In light of coal’s decline and the comparative drawbacks of fossil fuels and renewables, the public must consider prioritizing nuclear power to preserve the future of electricity generation throughout the Commonwealth. Nuclear energy is not a perfect source of electricity, but it is the most efficient, most secure, and most innovative source of electric power that man has yet discovered. It’s high time Kentucky unbridled her energy grid and let nuclear power out of the gates.