By Robinson Meyer
When the fate of the planet is at stake, a single precedent starts to seem like a blueprint.
Most Americans, as far as pollsters can tell, want the United States to honor its commitment under the Paris Agreement on climate change. According to that pact, the United States must, by 2025, cut its carbon emissions 26 percent below their all-time peak. That will be hard. To make the Paris goal, the U.S. would have to cut carbon by 2.6 percent every year for the next seven years. And it has simply never cut its emissions that fast in such a sustained way before.
In fact, since the end of World War II, only one country has pulled off such a feat: France. Starting in 1974, France undertook an extensive build-out of its nuclear-power industry, and slashed its carbon emissions by an average rate of 2.9 percent every year from 1979 to 1988, while still growing its economy. No country has done anything like that before or since.
Let there be no mistake: Nuclear power plants can generate enormous amounts of carbon-free electricity. A rapid increase in nuclear energy would slash emissions from the power sector, as the French example makes clear. Even today, France’s carbon density—its carbon emissions per capita—ranks well below that of Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States, according to the Global Carbon Atlas.
But you can’t put a nuclear reactor in a tractor-trailer or a steel plant. Nuclear can only reduce emissions from the power sector, and “the energy system is bigger than just electricity,” says Sam Ori, the executive director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago. “While I think nuclear has real potential as a means to decarbonizing electricity, you still have a lot of sectors to worry about.”
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