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Why transitioning to only renewable energy will be difficult for the U.S.

After millions of protesters marched around the globe to demand action on climate change, we more closely examine what policies they are proposing. Miles O’Brien joins William Brangham to discuss current sources of U.S. energy and what it would take to transition to all renewables, plus the outlook for nuclear power as the infamous Three Mile Island plant closes.

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  • William Brangham:

    As we can see, these protests today are easily the biggest climate change demonstrations in history.

    As we heard, this movement is calling for a fundamental remaking of how we power our modern world.

    I'm joined now by our science correspondent, Miles O'Brien.

    Miles, walk us through some of the practicalities. If these youth activists get their way, they would like us to be, by 2030, 100 percent green renewable energy. How tough is that?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Well, it's a noble goal, William, but it's a really big stretch to imagine getting there.

    If you look at the slice of the pie right now that is renewables in the United States, it's about 17 percent. A little more than 7 percent of that is hydro, dams. There's no new rivers to dam up.

    A little more than 6 percent of that is wind. A little more than 1 percent is solar. In order to get rid of all the fossil fuel production, which is about 63 percent of the pie, by 2050, one of the big things you have to solve is the issue of storage, the intermittency of wind power and solar.

    When the sun isn't shining and the wind isn't blowing, you're not generating electricity. We like to have our lights on 24/7/365. So that's a big issue that needs to be addressed.

    And it raises questions about, where does nuclear power fit in the mix?

  • William Brangham:

    Today, coincidentally, is a rather remarkable day in American U.S. nuclear history, because, as we saw, Three Mile Island, the infamous plant in Pennsylvania from that accident that happened in 1979, closed up shop today, permanently shuttered.

    Can you remind us of what happened back in '79 with Three Mile Island and how that impacted U.S. nuclear policy?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Yes, it's an interesting coincidence, or irony, whatever you like.

    March of 1979, the Three Mile Island Unit 2, through a combination of mechanical problems and human error, had a partial meltdown.

    In the end, only a small amount of radiation was released. I think the estimate was, people within a 10-mile radius would see the equivalent of a chest X-ray after it happened.

    But it changed the thinking about nuclear in a fundamental way. There was growing concern about nuclear. And, interestingly, about three weeks prior to the Three Mile Island incident, a movie, a very popular one, called "The China Syndrome," came out, which portrayed an evil corporation cutting corners, leading to a meltdown at a California nuclear power plant.

    So, in this case, life imitated art. And, frankly, the public, I think, conflated those two events.

    Of course, subsequent to that, you had Chernobyl, more recently, Fukushima. People get scared about nuclear.

  • William Brangham:

    And what did that do as far as our building out of nuclear? Like, how much do we rely on nuclear power today?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Well, right now, it's just a little below 20 percent.

    But the plants are closing precipitously. We have had — since 2013, eight of them have come offline. In the next few years, it's projected to be at least another seven. So that 19 percent piece of the pie that is nuclear is slated to drop to about 12 percent.

    Now, of course, what's replacing it, mostly fracked natural gas, which is on the rise. Renewables are on the rise too. But a lot of people would say that, if you want to address this carbon issue, which these young people are all about, you need to keep nuclear in the mix, at least in the short term, because these plants are not being replaced necessarily by zero carbon alternatives.

  • William Brangham:

    There are other nuclear proponents, Bill Gates among them, who was in D.C. recently lobbying for billions of dollars to be spent on a new generation of these nuclear plants.

    What happened with that effort?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    It's not easy.

    The average age of a nuclear plant is 39 years right now in the United States. The technology has kind of been frozen in time. Bill Gates is investing in a technology called TerraPower, which is sodium-cooled, not water-cooled. It has some inherent safety capabilities.

    The company wanted to build its first plan in China, but, at the 1st of the year, with the trade war that the Trump administration engaged in with that country, those plans were scuttled.

    There's one other company, NuScale, that is building these small modular water-cooled reactors. And there's a plant that is in stages of being permitted which will be built in Idaho. That has some inherent safety features as well.

    A lot of people would tell you that there is a whole new generation of nuclear out there that has many more safety features in it than the current fleet, and it's time now to put some investment in those.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Miles O'Brien, our science correspondent, thank you very much.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    You're welcome.

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