The key variable in the climate doomsday calculus is our reliance on fossil fuels. The sooner we can wean ourselves off oil, coal and natural gas, the less terrible the consequences of climate change will be. Currently, our most reliable sources of zero-carbon energy are nuclear power, which accounts for around 20 percent of the United States’ electricity, and wind and solar power, the latter of which produced about two percent of the nation’s electricity in 2017. But while solar power is still in its adolescence, many existing nuclear reactors are entering the twilight of obsolescence — up to 20 reactors (there are 60 in the United States) are in danger of closing in the next decade because of economic pressures, and most of them are reaching the end of their functional life spans anyway.
A team of scientists from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory is working to extend the longevity of these nuclear reactors. Yesterday, Ars Technica reported that The Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water (CASL), an Obama-era cohort funded by the Department of Energy, developed a modeling program called Virtual Environment for Reactor Applications (VERA), which allows them to determine which components in a nuclear reactor can be repaired or salvaged and which need to be replaced.
Prior to VERA, plant operators had little insight into how some parts of a plant — like used fuel rods — had aged, and were forced to operate conservatively, shutting down otherwise functional reactors once they had reached their projected life span. Obviously, you can’t take any chances with the safety of a nuclear reactor: you might drive a car on a flat tire, but you probably wouldn’t fly a plane with a bent wing. VERA will theoretically allow operators to take a home-improvement-like approach to keeping a plant running — fix what can be fixed, replace what can’t. Director of CASL Dave Kropaczek told Ars Technica that VERA could potentially double the lifespan of nuclear reactors, which could go a long way in smoothing the transition to zero-carbon energy.
While nuclear power wanes, solar power waxes. In states like California, solar energy already accounts for 16 percent of electricity generation, and The National Renewal Energy Laboratory estimates that solar farms could take up as much as 6 million acres of land by 2050 (that’s 9,375 square miles). Solar farms take up lots of space, and some solar farm owners are trying to convert that land into additional habitat for pollinators like bees and butterflies, according to Scientific American.
Typically, solar farms consist of rows and rows of solar panels mounted on racks over grass and gravel. But with habitat loss being one of a range of factors contributing to the decline of pollinators like bees and monarch butterflies, some ecologists have advocated for converting solar farms into more wildlife friendly spaces. “With the large surface areas that solar facilities occupy, they offer a pretty unique opportunity to plant and establish pollinator habitat that could help conserve pollinator diversity,” Argonne ecologist Ihor Hlohowskyj told Scientific American. Of course, this is nothing resembling a comprehensive solution to the decline in pollinator species, but it’s an important step in maintaining habitat as solar infrastructure expands.
Solar and nuclear power are, in many ways, vastly different solutions to the same problem. Despite the acrimony between boosters of nuclear and solar power, the only viable way of avoiding the worst consequences of climate change is to invest fully in both — keeping the former alive while expanding the latter in responsible ways.