In order to stop climate change and its negative effects as soon as possible, there has been a push to switch to clean, zero-emission energy as opposed to greenhouse gas contributors such as coal. Many are trying to find clean sources that are capable of replacing something as prevalent as coal. In this search, there may be a potential answer: nuclear energy.
Over the years, nuclear energy has been subject to controversy. Opponents feel it’s too dangerous, citing events like Chernobyl, where a nuclear power plant meltdown created a ghost city. Proponents feel it lacks the credit it deserves, citing its contributions to generating cleaner energy and its strengths, advocating for increasing the number of nuclear power plants.
The truth is, nuclear energy may not be the best source of energy, but it is good, enough so that we should look at it as a clean replacement for coal, natural gas, or other contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Nuclear energy would not serve as a replacement to renewables but to fossil fuels. The reasoning for this is simple: Nuclear energy is the most energy-efficient energy source, it is safe, and it brings us one step closer to a cleaner energy portfolio.
What is nuclear energy?
Nuclear energy is a clean source of energy with no emissions. It makes electricity by dividing uranium atoms (known as fission), which makes heat, that then makes steam, which finally makes a turbine move.
Nuclear energy is not renewable because of the use of uranium, an atom of finite abundance. This process also generates waste that is too toxic to dispose of, but it is minimal. In places like France, where nuclear plants provide about 80% of their total energy needed, the process of recycling nuclear waste to generate additional energy has begun. This happens by taking used uranium and plutonium, transforming it into an oxide of sorts, and then putting it back in as fuel. This process takes a while, but its capability to reuse the waste and make nuclear virtually renewable makes it worthwhile. The U.S. has not initiated this yet.
In 2019, the U.S. had 58 nuclear power plants, producing around 19% of all domestic energy. Nuclear power plants are highly regulated to ensure workers and people nearby are safe from the radioactive dangers of nuclear energy and waste.
Nuclear energy is efficient, as demonstrated by its capacity factor, a percentage that reflects the efficiency of a power source, comparing actual to theoretical maximum electricity production. Nuclear’s capacity factor was the highest of any energy source, exceeding 92% in 2018, with geothermal in second at a capacity factor of about 77%.
Not only is nuclear energy-efficient, but it can also use that efficiency to generate a large amount of energy through its fuel: uranium. Around three eighths of an inch by five eighths of an inch, a uranium pellet can produce as much energy as a ton of coal. The energy needed for approximately 755,000 homes can be provided by a nuclear reactor, which nuclear plants tend to have one to a few of. To put things into perspective, the population of Pittsburgh is about 300,000 as of April 2020.
Nuclear’s efficiency has already proved to be capable, with nuclear providing about 19% of all energy needed by the U.S. with only 58 power plants. Adding even a few power plants could mean drastically increasing energy output for the U.S. With recycling nuclear energy waste, power plants could produce even more energy, and do so with a virtually infinite supply. Major clean energy sources are not capable of producing the amount of energy needed to replace major sources such as coal, but nuclear would be, having already proved its capabilities.
While events like Chernobyl may lead many to believe that nuclear energy is not safe, that is not the case. After some nuclear power plants had meltdowns, many regulations were put in place, increasing their safety and reducing the risk of another meltdown. Its deathprint—a per trillion kilowatt-hour (kWhr) death count caused by energy production—in 2012 was 90 deaths globally and 0.1 deaths nationally, both the lowest among common energy sources. Hydropower was in second nationally, with 5 deaths per trillion kWhr while wind was in second globally, with 150 deaths per trillion kWhr. With the smallest deathprint, nuclear proves to be safe for its workers.
People also feel that nuclear power plant workers receive too much radiation, making them susceptible to cancer, which may not show up in a deathprint. But that isn’t the case. Federal laws mandate that all nuclear workers can’t get more than 5,000 millirems of radiation in a year, half the amount scientists consider safe exposure. In reality, about 150 millirems is the amount that nuclear power plant workers receive, which is nowhere near being cancerous.
Many fear that a nuclear power plant meltdown could invoke a ghost city, but that isn’t true. In an effort to maintain reputation and safety, the heads of nuclear power plants have built-in safety measures to prevent and contain meltdowns. These safety measures are regulated by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. With this protection, it is extremely unlikely for a meltdown to occur, and even if it does, it will not spread beyond the plant itself, ensuring no harm to its surroundings.
Through regulations and built-in protective measures, it is ensured that nuclear energy is harnessed safely. Nuclear having the lowest deathprint of major energy sources proves that these safety measures are paying off.
Contributions to clean energy
In an effort to reduce the harmful effects of global warming, there has been a push to increase the production of clean energy sources, which do not emit greenhouse gas. But nuclear energy might be the answer. In fact, it already is part of the answer. 55% of all clean energy generated by the U.S. is from nuclear energy. In 2018, nuclear energy prevented 528 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, the most of any other clean source. Hydropower was in a distant second, with only 191.5 million metric tons.
The portion of clean energy nuclear energy is already providing demonstrates that it is capable of being a replacement to emission contributors like coal. In a letter to prominent political figures, four reputed climate scientists stated, “there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power”[source]. Expansion of nuclear energy would provide large-scale energy in a clean way, fast enough to combat global warming. While other sources would need to make significant changes for large scale energy, nuclear, with prior capabilities, would have to do little.
Nuclear is a very capable source of energy, enough so that it can become a true replacement for sources like coal. Its unmatched efficiency means an increase in power plants would provide the drastic increase in energy output needed to replace greenhouse gas contributors. Nuclear energy is the safest source of energy, which means a rise in production would ensure the safety of people.
While building nuclear power plants could be costly and time-consuming, these problems could be easily fixed by making the process for creating nuclear power plants more efficient. This is seen in countries like China, where practice with building power plants has enabled a gain in efficiency and a reduction in price, without compromising safety. Meanwhile, in the U.S., few nuclear power plants are produced, making people less adapted to their creation. This causes them to come in unprepared and disorganized which slows down the process and drives up the cost. Additionally, as a replacement for coal, nuclear energy would actually save money, considering the healthcare costs associated with coal’s pollution. Nuclear energy also produces waste, but it is minimal, and with recycling, the waste could be reduced significantly. Both of these problems are minor, especially looking at nuclear energy’s positive attributes, which is why they would not hinder nuclear energy’s ability to be a clean alternative.
In the end, if we, as humanity, truly want to reduce the impact of global warming through the energy sector, then nuclear energy is the answer.