SciPolBites: Environmental Sustainability

Apr 22, 2021

SciPolBites is a series of reflections from NSPN members about current issues in science and policy. In this SciPolBite, published in honor of Earth Day, three members share their perspectives on policies relating to the environment, including nuclear power, sustainable transportation, and environmental justice.

Daniel Puentes (@NuclearPuentes)

Sustainability with Nuclear Energy

Nuclear energy is a taboo topic with supporters and protestors across the spectrum at the community level. However, when it comes to climate change, one thing has become increasingly clear: the transition to a net-zero emission through renewable technology will be more expensive without a baseload energy source available to provide electricity when needed. Nuclear energy, however, can provide that baseload support, and new reactor production is currently on the rise globally. States like Russia and China have been advancing their infrastructure with the advent of new small modular reactors coming online to provide commercial electricity. These include the first commercial floating nuclear power plant designed to provide electricity to remote locations across the northern coasts of Russia. New fuel types, such as TRISO pebbles and High-Assay Low Enriched Uranium (HALEU), are also being produced by several facilities globally to meet the demands of new designs for advanced reactors such as the Natrium reactor by TerraPower in the U.S.

At the policy level, nuclear energy is enjoying bipartisan support amongst policymakers across the aisle. In the late days of the Trump presidency, President Trump signed H.R.133 (the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021) into law, which is considered one of the largest energy legislation passed in the new century. HR.133 contains elements from the American Energy Innovation Act, including $174 million for the facilities to produce infrastructure and production of HALEU fuel, appropriated over five years. This bill also included funding support of $2.14 billion appropriated over five years, for the advanced reactor demonstration project, with companies like X-energy. Another important law that was passed is the S.512 (Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act). This directed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to develop new procedures for licensing new and advanced reactors, which is already seeing results. NuScale, a nuclear power plant company, is the first to have its small modular reactor design published with a final safety evaluation by the NRC. Most recently, the Biden administration is pushing for the American Jobs Plan, which invests $15 million into demonstration projects focused on climate R&D priorities, like advanced nuclear reactors, continuing the trend towards the next generation of nuclear reactors. The next step is tackling the radioactive waste management problem, which must begin at the community level with effective science communication and confidence building. However, the future of nuclear energy is looking bright for the transition to net-zero emissions. With advancing reactor technologies and new regulatory infrastructures being developed, it will be safer and more affordable to transition to a renewable net-zero emission society. Nuclear energy doesn't always have to be a source of energy in the future, but for now, it will be a critical player in the march towards global decarbonization.

Jenny Bratburd (@jbratburd) and Eleni Bickell (@DrEleniBickell)

Sustainability for Transportation

Sustainability is a simple idea, but challenging to execute. How do we meet energy needs without harming the ability for future generations of people to meet their needs? With sustainable energy policy, we explore how to effectively and efficiently generate energy while minimizing environmental damage. Fossil fuels—petroleum, natural gas, and coal—account for about 80% of total U.S. primary energy production. The transportation sector accounts for approximately 30% of total U.S. energy needs and 70% of U.S. petroleum consumption. To explore sustainable fuel transportation, let's explore two policy proposals: biofuels and electrification.

One proposal is to expand the use of biofuels and biodiesel, fuel made from renewable fats and oils, like soybean oil. Biodiesel is biodegradable, nontoxic, and generally free of sulfur and aromatics, and relatively easy to use. Biofuel also provides a value-added market for agricultural products. To incentivize more production, and use of biodiesel and other renewable energy sources, Congress has created the renewable fuel standard program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and expand the nation's renewable fuels sector while reducing reliance on imported oil. In Missouri, state legislators have introduced HB529 which will establish a minimum biodiesel fuel content mandate for diesel fuel sold or offered for sale in Missouri, from 5% biodiesel blend starting in 2023 to 10% after 2024. This legislation combines expanding sustainability efforts with improving the supply chain commodity markets.

Another proposal revolves around electrification—replacing gasoline-fueled vehicles with electric vehicles. This effort is combined with efforts to make electricity production more sustainable, such as replacing coal-fired power plants with sources such as solar and wind power. As prices of renewable energy from sources like solar and wind drop, along with costs of electric vehicles, consumers could actually save money. The Biden administration infrastructure plan may incentivize electrifying the U.S. vehicle fleet, as well as expand charging stations. Many states have likewise expanded incentives for electric vehicles.

Both proposals could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Both also have hurdles, including the challenge of limited farmable land and intensive resources needed for growing some biofuels, scaling up production of electric vehicles, increasing charging stations, and increasing renewable energy on the electric grid.

While climate change can seem like an overwhelming challenge as temperatures across the globe continue to rise and levels of greenhouse gases increase, it can be helpful to think about the history of Earth Day. Earth Day first began in 1970, with raised awareness from Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, and widely publicized events like the fire on the Cuyahoga River and Santa Barbara oil spill. By the end of the decade, the Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act, Water Quality Improvement Act, Toxic Substances Control Act and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act were passed, and the EPA was established. As the price of sustainable energy drop and technology improves, we may see substantial changes and effort to combat climate change in this decade.

Kavi Chintam (@thakavic)

Sustainability for Equity

The urgent transition to clean energy has already faced challenges due to countercampaigns from decades-old fossil fuel run industries. While there is now a shift in U.S. federal, state, and local policies to promote the development of clean energy, one question remains: Will everyone benefit from the clean energy transition, regardless of socioeconomic status, race, and location? The answer: Not unless equity is an intentional part of the transition.

The environmental justice movement began during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, when Black communities were unraveling how overt and systemic racism affects everything from education to health to pollution. Energy justice emerged in the 1980s from initiatives in science and policy to mitigate climate change with clean energy as a critical component. Low-income communities and neighborhoods with people of color carried the brunt of the fossil fuel industry that prevailed, while other parts of the U.S. started to experience the benefits of clean energy.

Evidence of disproportionate benefits and encumbrances of clean energy endures. Rooftop solar installations are significantly less than average in Black, Latinx, and Asian communities, while the installations are 21% more than average in White-majority communities. Even more telling, when correcting for household ownership, the trends hold, signaling the clear consequences of racial discrimination. The growing demand in the U.S. for hydropower reserves from Canada is causing long-term environmental damage to public lands, debilitating food sources on which First Nations rely. As more homes use renewable energy, costs also rise, burdening low-income families even if total emissions are lowered.

There is room for cautious optimism, however. President Biden's Justice40 initiative requires certain funded projects to dedicate 40% of the overall benefits of their clean energy investments to disadvantaged communities. Some states are discussing how to prioritize low-income individuals for clean energy jobs and access to affordable clean energy. On a federal level, President Biden has pledged to create over 10 million clean energy jobs with a focus on hiring women and people of color.

The bottom line: There has long been a misconception that clean energy will indisputably benefit everyone. Although this may be true for overall emissions, simply swapping fossil fuels for clean energy does nothing to address the underlying, oppressive systems that have harmed people of color for generations. We must intentionally involve and support historically disadvantaged communities. Combating climate change is urgent. Let's not ignore the parallel urgency of energy justice.

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