With very serious issues like health care, gun control, Russian tampering and prison reform, it’s unlikely a narrow issue like a candidate’s stance on nuclear power will sway votes.
However, since all the leading climate scientists say we cannot address climate change without significant nuclear power, supporting nuclear power — or not — is a clear signal about how serious a candidate is about climate change and how serious that candidate is about supporting science over mere activism.
Many candidates are clearly OK with using nuclear power for addressing climate change. Some clearly are not. Six of the remaining democratic candidates to make the debate stage support nuclear in some way, one does not, and one is unclear.
On the Republican side, President Donald Trump doesn’t seem to care and William Weld, former governor of Massachusetts, looks more like a Democrat on climate but likes nuclear, a relic of his previously being a Libertarian. Former U.S. Congressman Joe Walsh, from Illinois, believes climate change is real and impacted by human activities, and appears fine with nuclear. Former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford has yet to officially enter the race.
All of the candidates, except Trump, want to rejoin the Paris Agreement and want to price carbon in some way.
While most candidates are for keeping existing nuclear open to take advantage of their carbon-free energy, many keep saying new nuclear needs to be safer and have the waste issue resolved, even though nuclear is the safest form of energy we have, and spent fuel doesn't pose any serious risk.
And we know what to do with the waste, we just can’t do anything for political reasons.
Sen. Bernie Sanders is rabidly anti-nuclear and would phase out existing plants already re-licensed as safe for the next 20 years by the NRC. He doesn’t even like the new small modular reactors that can’t melt down and that have solved all of those safety issues.
Former HUD Secretary Julian Castro wants no new plants and doesn’t believe nuclear is safe but, along with Indiana’s South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, doesn’t call for closing existing plants. Former Vice President Joe Biden has a $5 trillion climate plan which includes nuclear energy.
Inslee is no longer in the race but was pro-nuclear. In May, he signed a clean energy bill that commits Washington State to 100% carbon-free electricity by 2045, and paves the way for further development of nuclear energy in the state.
Senators Cory Booker of Vermont and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur, support existing and new nuclear plants as necessary to address climate change. Yang has also promised to make thorium molten salt reactors as part of his climate plan for achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, pretty forward thinking for a non-scientist. Yang also wants to explore solar geoengineering, also pretty forward thinking.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren seemed open to nuclear but during the CNN Climate Town Hall stated she was against nuclear completely because the risks outweigh the benefits. Unfortunately, she has no idea what the risks are. Along with Sanders and California Senator Kamala Harris, Warren is also against Yucca Mt., and says we need a coherent national plan.
Fomer Rep. Beto O’Rourke, of Texas, has been unclear, but has a $5 trillion dollar energy plan for the U.S. to get to net-zero emissions by 2050 and supported the Clean Energy Plan of President Obama, which allowed nuclear in.
Many of those candidates who are on the fence about nuclear because of unwarranted fear should welcome the passage of S. 512, the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act signed by the President in January. It is a bill supporting new nuclear development.
Another bill, S. 903, Nuclear Energy Leadership Act, passed out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in July, and aims to restore U.S. leadership in the civil nuclear industry by helping to develop a range of advanced reactor technologies that are clean, safe and reliable, even though existing ones already are. The Nuclear Energy Renewal Act, was introduced by a bipartisan group of senators Aug. 1st and aims to extend the life of the country’s existing nuclear fleet.
So there are lots of reasons to watch the debates Thursday, and lots of reasons to vote in 2020.
Jim Conca is a longtime resident and scientist in the Tri-Cities, a trustee of the Herbert M. Parker Foundation, and a science contributor to Forbes at forbes.com/sites/ jamesconca.