Here are three surprising facts. First: Nuclear power is the biggest carbon-free energy source in the U.S. now, supplying 20 percent of U.S. electricity Second: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that to prevent climate catastrophe, we need significant investments in nuclear energy. The third: Many environmental groups fighting climate change hate Nuclear energy. A 2019 letter to Congress, signed by over 600 environmental groups, calls for an end to U.S. nuclear power as part of a new green agreement. The Sierra Club is unequivocally against nuclear power. Greenpeace believes that nuclear energy has no place in a secure, clean and sustainable future.
These three facts left me a little confused. With a climate catastrophe looming over the future of our planets, why are so many climate change activists so strongly opposed to our largest source of carbon-free energy?
Their opposition is summed up in three largely unfounded concerns, which I will discuss on their part: risk, waste, and need (or lack thereof).
How dangerous is nuclear energy? Well, let’s look at the data. A good metric for the risk of an energy source is deaths per terawatt hour. Here are the statistics, according to Our World in Data: Coal: 30; Oil: 18.4; Era: 0.035; Hydro: 0.024; Nuclear: 0.01-0.074 (two studies are cited) Nuclear does not seem dangerous at all. In fact, by many estimates, solar panels on the ceiling kill significantly more people per TWh (terawat hours) than nuclear, because roof installations are so dangerous.
A comprehensive study published in the Journal of Cleaner Production estimates that the Chernobyl disaster is responsible for over 80 percent of nuclear-related deaths. This includes deaths attributable to accidents, increased cancer risks, and deaths from nuclear material mining. But Chernobyl was an outer edge: a poorly designed reactor, run by a poorly trained staff, overseen by a corrupt, incompetent government. The Fukushima disaster, the worst nuclear disaster in recent memory had a number of radiation deaths of: one.
More people die every two days from road accidents than have died from nuclear power in the last 100 years. And that statistic includes the Chernobyl meltdown, the repetition of which modern reactor designs have made impossible.
People are terrible at risk assessment; we are afraid of flying but not driving. Nuclear energy is no different. A sober look at the data gives the core worldwide a very good security history and the US core a stunning.
Yes, current nuclear power plants produce waste, but misconceptions about nuclear waste are numerous. Radioactive waste is not some liquid sludge, as described in The Simpsons. Nuclear waste is basically solid metal, often rods. Currently, in the US, it is safely stored in nuclear plants themselves, often wrapped in steel and concrete.
This nuclear waste can, in fact, be recycled into fuel because nuclear plants deplete only part of their uranium. This is what France does (France, by the way, gets seventy percent of its electricity from the nucleus). A longer-term solution to the nuclear waste problem is landfilling, where waste is deposited in steel and concrete and placed deep in geological depots.
Remember, we produce all kinds of harmful chemicals by doing the things we need. Solar panels themselves use toxic metals that very often end up in landfills. Nuclear waste is carefully stored, can be recycled, can be buried, and does not pose the kind of hazards that anti-nuclear activists claim.
Do we need nuclear energy?
The risks posed by disasters and nuclear power waste have been greatly overestimated by nuclear skeptics, but that does not mean those risks do not exist. Thus, many people wonder if we need a nucleus at all. Can we tackle climate change only with renewable resources?
We must first take into account the fact that global energy production will continue to grow at least for the next few decades as low- and middle-income countries develop. As people in low-income countries become richer, they will consume more food, goods and energy. We should not see this as a bad thing, or try to stop it: Escape from terrible poverty is a massive moral achievement (greater food security, better education, better health care, better life good). The worst is when countries meet the growing energy needs of coal (as China and India do).
The sun and wind face two major obstacles to taking on a more significant burden of total electricity production (currently they combine to a small seven percent of world electricity production). The sun and wind are not particularly dense from energy, so meeting the growing demand for energy and wind requires large amounts of land. By comparing energy per unit area of the earth, you will find that the sun and wind require 75 and 300 times more earth, respectively, than nuclear.
According to calculations by environmentalist Mark Lynass – based on Greenpeace’s optimistic plan in which wind energy provides 22 percent and solar 17 percent of global electricity by 2030 – wind farms would cover one million square kilometers of the globe and solar plants an additional fifty thousand. To meet only 39 percent of global electricity needs by 2030, you will need to cover a mass of land the size of: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Maine, South Carolina, West Virginia, Maryland, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island. And this is just the beginning, as this calculation ignores non-electric energy consumption and does not even begin to take into account the increased demand for energy after 2030.
Another problem is interruption. When the sun does not shine and the wind does not blow, the panels and turbines do not produce electricity. This poses a massive problem when you consider how much battery space would be required to conserve all the energy to supply an entire place during a few days with minimal sun and wind (or even just at night). The problem of outages in California has forced them not only to pay neighboring states to get excess solar energy during peaks, but also to rely on fossil fuels to supply energy along solar corridors.
My point is not that renewables cannot theoretically meet growing energy needs. You could possibly have, with large amounts of land, colossal investments in batteries (note the environmental damage in battery production and disposal), and hydroelectric environmental damage. On the contrary, my opinion is that it is much easier to decarbonize quickly with investments in the core. Nuclear power is simply not that of pandora anti-nuclear activists.
Recent innovations in nuclear energy are making a nuclear future quite attractive. Generation IV nuclear plants (compared to the decades-old Generation II plants we still run in the US) further address anti-nuclear safety and waste concerns.
Gene IV plants can use existing nuclear waste as fuel. They require fuel very rarely. They have passive safety mechanisms, i.e. overheating automatically causes a shutdown (without human intervention) and melts are virtually impossible. And some Gen IV designs are modular, meaning they can be mass-produced and easily shipped to developing countries.
Learn from our mistakes:
In a way, we have been at this crossroads before. Seeing the damage of nuclear weapons, the green movement spent most of the 1970s protesting against nuclear power and shutting down plants. Do you know what replaced many of those nuclear plants? Coal. And while many in the green movement have realized the necessity of nuclear power, it is still somewhat taboo.
There is reason for hope. For the first time in almost five decades, The Democratic Party has backed nuclear power on their platform, though in detail. And, surprisingly, nuclear power enjoys majority support among Republicans, making it a two-party affair.
Let us not miss this opportunity to prevent climate catastrophe. Let us not be deceived by the shock of fear before the data. Rather, let us use the knowledge of 20th century physics and 21st century innovation to lead to a prosperous, carbon-free future for all!
Jonah Garnick 23 is from Weston, Mass.
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