A couple months ago I would’ve shuddered at the idea of increasing nuclear energy. When I heard the word nuclear I immediately thought of its military uses and the devastating history behind nuclear warfare. News of nuclear accidents like the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima had also added to my immediate dismissal of the possibility that nuclear energy could provide a safe energy source. I didn’t even consider other possible benefits.
However, in the recent months I learned that everything I thought I knew about nuclear energy was wrong. Unfortunately, I was guilty of falling in line with anti-nuclear stigma without even researching the facts.
So, I know, supporting nuclear energy may seem crazy, I was a firm believer too. However, I’ve compiled (what I think) is a compelling argument to support nuclear energy as the future’s leader in clean energy (I don’t even consider non-clean energy). You’re welcome to do some research yourself, in fact, I encourage it!
Many people fear the danger of nuclear energy. To begin, I’ll address some of the typical reasons people worry: radiation, radiation, danger of weaponization, and more radiation. The consensus, people are worried about the dangers of the radiation that a nuclear plant could produce, especially in the event of an accident. Some also worry that a nuclear power plant could explode in the way a nuclear bomb would, which “devastating” would be an understatement.
However, the fear behind radiation has been vastly blown out of proportion, there is ample evidence that radiation imposed dangers are negligible, especially when compared to consequences of modern day coal and oil energy sources.
Nuclear energy actually releases less radiation into the environment (meaning everything around it, including us) than any other major energy source. So this means that fossil fuels release radiation? Yes! Coal is by far the worse culprit behind radiation since the mineral contains significant amounts of radioactive elements of uranium and thorium. When the coal is gasified these elements become what is called “fly ash”, the bounty of fly ash in our world’s environment is currently the leader in radioactive releases. As published by Harvard University, “fossil fuels have a host of problems themselves. The byproducts from burning fossil fuels are toxic pollutants that produce ozone, toxic organic aerosols, particulate matter, and heavy metals. The World Health Organization has stated the urban air pollution, which is a mixture of all of the chemicals just described, causes 7 million deaths annually or about 1 in 8 of total deaths.
Perhaps you hand’t heard of these horrific industrial accidents. In Bhopal, India (1984), when 40 tons of methyl isocyanate gas leaked from a plant where 3,800 people died immediately with thousands more sickened. In Henan Province, China (1975), the failure of a hydroelectric dam in a typhoon drowned 26,000 people…some sources claim deaths could have totaled up to 171,000 people!
According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the partial meltdown of the Three-Mile Island reactor in March 1979, “The approximately 2 million people around TMI-2 during the accident are estimated to have received an average radiation dose of only about 1 millirem above the usual background dose. To put this into context, exposure from a chest X-ray is about 6 millirem and the area’s natural radioactive background dose is about 100-125 millirem per year… In spite of serious damage to the reactor, the actual release had negligible effects on the physical health of individuals or the environment”.
Arguably the worse nuclear accident in history is marked by the explosion and burnout of a large graphite-moderated, water-cooled reactor at Chernobyl (1986), 29 disaster relief workers died of acute radiation exposure immediately, but since then decades long study by UNSCEAR — the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, has concluded no long term health consequences to the people exposed to Chernobyl except for a rise in thyroid cancers of residents who were children or adolescents at the time of the accident, who drank milk contaminated with 131iodine, and who were not evacuated. Ultimately the rise in the cancer from 1991 – 1995 resulted in another 15 deaths.
The following is directly from Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies article (since I couldn’t of explained it any better), “The average effective doses” of radiation from Chernobyl, UNSCEAR also concluded, “due to both external and internal exposures, received by members of the general public during 1986-2005 [were] about 30 mSv for the evacuees, 1 mSv for the residents of the former Soviet Union, and 0.3 mSv for the populations of the rest of Europe.” A sievert is a measure of radiation exposure, a millisievert is one-one-thousandth of a sievert. A full-body CT scan delivers about 10-30 mSv. A U.S. resident receives an average background radiation dose, exclusive of radon, of about 1 mSv per year.
Bottom line, when comparing the annual radiation exposure we receive from fossil fuel emissions and the statistics behind accidents to even the most dangerous nuclear accident (Chernobyl) history has ever witnessed, it’s clear that nuclear energy is much safer.
Crazy, right? But there’s still many more benefits to the stigmatized energy source, stay with me.
Pulitzer Prize winning author Richard Rhodes explains in his article “Why Nuclear Power Must Be Part of the Energy Solution”, that nuclear energy is not only cleaner than fossil fuel plants and more effective (even beating out renewable energy in this aspect), advancing technology has made nuclear energy a realistically feasible solution to fighting climate change.
When most renewable energy sources are built, like solar power, the only greenhouse gas released is from the need for fossil fuel energy during construction, mining, maintenance, etc. Nuclear power plants release about the same amount greenhouse gas for the same reasons, which is only about 5% as fossil fuel plants. Renewable sources like wind, solar, and hydro, are competitive with their nuclear counterpart, all of them dramatically cleaner than fossil fuels. However, nuclear energy should receive much more credit than other renewable sources since it’s MUCH more effective.
Renewable resources face the limitations because they depends on climate that is always changing, nuclear energy doesn’t have their problem. A capacity factor is defined as a measure of what percentage of the time a power plant actually produces energy. In the year of 2016 hydroelectric systems only delivered power 38.2% of the time, wind turbines 34.5% of the time, and solar 25.1% of the time. On the flip side, nuclear power plants averaged a capacity factor of 92.3%, blowing their competition out of the water (even fossil fuel plants only generated a capacity factor of about 50%).
Finally, nuclear energy is a much more realistic and feasible clean energy solution since power plants take up much less space and, when taking into account the economic consequences of climate change, much cheaper. A typical 1,000-megawatt nuclear facility in the United States needs a little more than 1 square mile to operate. NEI says wind farms require 360 times for area to produce the same amount of electricity and solar photovoltaic plants require 75 times more space. The U.S. Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, (the one in New Mexico), currently stores low-level and transuranic military waste and could store commercial nuclear waste in a 2-kilometer thick bed of crystalline salt, the remains of an ancient sea. The salt formation extends from southern New Mexico all the way northeast to southwestern Kansas. It could easily accommodate the entire world’s nuclear waste for the next thousand years.
So, if nuclear energy is cleaner, more reliable, and feasible, why is it only fueling 20% of U.S. electricity?
STIGMA, for one. Nuclear energy is highly controversial on the political stage, many are scared of what they think could happen in the event of a disaster. However, misinformation has allowed the truth to stay hidden, burning fossil fuels is much more dangerous for our environment and our own personal health, advancing technology has made nuclear power plants much safer in chances of an accident, and even if a war broke out nuclear power plants cannot be activated/exploded into a bomb!
We cannot be surprised that nuclear energy has been forbidden the credit and opportunity it deserves. Fossil fuels corporations benefit from hiding their competitor and fueling misinformation, we can’t erase the terrifying history behind Nagasaki and Hiroshima from the word “nuclear”. However, as time goes on population will only increase, energy is something we have all come to depend on, and the current energy sources are not enough to preserver through the climate crisis. Our current administration and corporate scandals prove that the economy has been prioritized over the environment, and warnings by scientists have repeatedly been dismissed.
If we truly want a cleaner, safer, and possible future, we must listen to scientists and scholars that are not blinded by economic gains. Nuclear energy must be given the priority it deserves.
References: http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2016/reconsidering-risks-nuclear-power/,https://e360.yale.edu/features/why-nuclear-power-must-be-part-of-the-energy-solution-environmentalists-climate, https://www.energy.gov/ne/articles/3-reasons-why-nuclear-clean-and-sustainable, https://www.nei.org/news/2015/land-needs-for-wind-solar-dwarf-nuclear-plants, https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/ten-thousand-years/