Do We Need Nuclear?


Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

What is the first thing that pops into your mind when you hear the word “nuclear”? Nuclear weapons? North Korea? Chernobyl? Despite powering one-fifth of the United States, these associations have created an overall negative view of nuclear energy. However, why is it that one of the safest and most efficient forms of renewable energy is still being excluded from the mainstream climate change debate?


Safe and Sound?

Admittedly, nuclear energy is considered taboo for many Americans, bringing to mind horrible scenes of Three Mile Island and Fukushima. But how dangerous is it really to go nuclear?


According to a 2010 study by the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control, and National Academy of Science, coal kills 170,000 people per trillion kilowatt hours, a tragic 1.964 million people per year, making it by far the deadliest source of power. But what is the safest?


Although many may look to solar or wind energy as safer alternatives to coal, it is surprisingly nuclear energy that is the least deadly, as well as having one of the lowest carbon footprints. National Geographic explains that the manufacturing of solar panels requires the use of corrosive chemicals, such as sodium hydroxide and hydrofluoric acid, and the process itself requires water and electricity, the production of which creates waste and emits greenhouse gases. The life-cycle emissions, manufacturing of components and materials, and transportation of the interior all contribute to wind’s carbon footprint. Ryan Zinke, secretary of the Department of the Interior, stated that wind energy kills “as many as 750,000 birds a year.” However, studies show that wind power has one of the smallest carbon footprints at 14 g CO2/kWh.


But at 12 g CO2/kWh, nuclear power has been proven to be 40% safer than even wind power. Along with that, it produces seventeen times more of our global power supply than wind does, exceeding all other sources of green energy. In spite of this, Gallup found in a 2016 poll that 54% of the country somewhat opposed or strongly opposed the use of nuclear energy as one of the ways to provide electricity for the United States. So, if the facts point to nuclear as the crème de la crème of clean energy, why are we so against it?


Misplaced Fear

Most of the concern for nuclear energy stems from what everyone hears when it makes headlines: disasters. Whenever an incident at a nuclear facility occurs, the mainstream media creates images of devastation and stows fear in the hearts of people watching from the sidelines. Take these incidents that leave many doubtful and unsupportive of the emergence of nuclear energy:


Three Mile Island 1979: By a problem with a a pressure control valve, coolant water leaked, resulting in the core overheating and melting down. Although this was considered the worst nuclear accident in US history according to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commision, the amount of radiation released was “small” and had “no detectable health effects on plant workers or the public”; the approximately two million people near the area are estimated to have received an average radiation dose of only about one millirem above the usual background dose. In context, exposure from a chest X-ray is about six millirem and the area’s natural radioactive background dose is about 100-125 millirem per year for the area (United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission). Even so, the US government would pass comprehensive laws to prevent such an accident from happening again. Plant design and equipment requirements were strengthened and upgraded, including individual components, automatic shutdown, and fire protection. Furthermore, the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations and Nuclear Energy Institute were established to create a standardized approach to regulatory issues.


Chernobyl 1986: With a faulty reactor and inadequately trained staff, a steam explosion in the fourth of the reactors released 5% of the core’s radiation into the atmosphere, killing two workers, with another 28 people dying by acute radiation syndrome in the following weeks. Between the next two decades, 19 more deaths were recorded; however, evidence connecting them with the accident is inconclusive. The World Nuclear Association explains that the design of the Chernobyl reactor was unique and is therefore “of little relevance to the rest of the nuclear industry outside the then Eastern Bloc.” Furthermore, modifications have been made to similar reactors to prevent another Chernobyl incident; these modifications include the installation of automated inspection equipment, upgrade of automatic shutdown mechanisms, and initiation of many international programs to fund safety review projects. 


Fukushima 2011: A 47-foot tsunami took out the power and cooling systems for three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck Japan. All three cores melted down within three days. The event forced the evacuation of 100,000 people. Although a tragic 1,000 lives would be lost in the evacuation, not a single death or case of radiation sickness came from the release of radiation.


Since the start of the nuclear age, only 10 meltdowns have occurred, mostly from military or experimental sites. However, after the incident at Three-Mile-Island, regulation rolled out that mandated reactors to be designed for one-in-10,000-year core damage frequency standards. As a matter of fact, reactors run by U.S. utilities are designed for one-in-100,000-year damage frequency standards, one-in-1 million years for current generation reactors, and one-in-10 million years for reactors currently being designed. Due to legislation put in place after each incident, along with advanced scientific understanding of nuclear energy and reactor design, such reactor explosions are extremely unlikely to happen again. Our understanding of nuclear safety has progressed so far that future nuclear energy initiatives are likely to succeed without danger.


One Reactor’s Trash Is Another Reactor’s Treasure

A typical 1 GW nuclear reactor creates 27 tons of nuclear waste every year. But new breeder reactors being developed can use plutonium waste as fuel. By recycling this waste to power, these reactors can remove current waste and stop future waste build-up, reusing their own waste until it is all gone. 


The Alternatives

Although most people are happy with forsaking fossil fuels for green energy that can still keep the lights on, there are those who want that future without nuclear in the picture. As appealing as it may seem to simply power our world from safer solar panels and wind turbines, any plan for a clean energy world would be infeasible would nuclear as a key player. A bio-diverse habitat of 90 acres of pine forest, for wildlife and other plant life on the property of Six Flags, was to be destroyed to make room for a solar farm. Trees being cut down to make room for solar and wind are releasing carbon, no longer filtering it, helping contribute to the problem. Other plans include methods that massacre wildlife, putting into question what our mission means to “save the environment”, meanwhile nuclear plants take much less area to produce more energy than any solar, wind, or hydro plant.


We in Morris County even fell victim when we dived into the shallow pool of solar energy. After investing millions in a massive solar initiative that was promised to pay for itself, the industry took a downturn and the project failed. Our county then tried to escape the solar business, with 81 million dollars expended for the deal and 21 million more for the bailout.


Fighting Ignorance

All of us look forward to a world where fossil fuels are a thing of the past. But when we try to rid one of our best methods of achieving that goal, we are only taking away our strongest ally against the hegemonizing petroleum and coal companies. Becoming victims of fear-mongering only diverts the path to ending non-renewable energy sources, while making us run away from one of the safest places in the energy world. Through education, we can hope to include all the tools we have to combat a common enemy that seeks to continue pumping its poison into our atmosphere for many days to come.