The Future Should Be Nuclear
Emissions by different types of electricity generation
Since 1980, global power consumption has risen by 14 billion kilowatt hours. As we continue to increase our power consumption exponentially, we should also look to new renewable forms of energy. However, nuclear power is often overlooked as a future replacement for fossil fuels or non-renewable energy due to the misconceptions that it is unsafe and damaging to the environment. In fact, nuclear energy may be the best option for our growing dependence on electricity. Nuclear power does not create carbon dioxide during operation, but it is seen by many green organizations and the public to be dangerous. Nuclear energy was left out of the controversial Green New Deal and organizations like Green Peace and Green America, who have routinely come out in opposition to it. Nuclear energy currently accounts for 10 percent of all the power in the world, including 20 percent in the USA, 12 percent in Germany and a whopping 75 percent in France. Unfortunately, the debate surrounding nuclear power is dominated by misconceptions, lack of knowledge and fear mongering by activists.
When talking about nuclear power it is important to understand how it works. Most nuclear reactors generate energy by splitting Uranium 235 in the reactor’s core so that it will create heat. This heat makes the water surrounding the core evaporate into steam which drives a turbine creating electricity. A nuclear meltdown occurs when water cooling the reactor core cannot be pumped fast enough. This causes an explosion to happen due to the high pressure that these reactors run at.
There are many misunderstandings and myths surrounding nuclear power, the most popular being that it is dangerous to humans and the environment. Since the 1950s, when the first nuclear plant was made, there have been only three major nuclear accidents: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. The first was contained without harm to anyone, and the next involved an intense fire without containment. The third severely tested the containment, allowing some release of radioactivity but caused no lasting effects on the environment and had no casualties as a result of radiation. These are the only major nuclear accidents to have occurred in over 17,000 cumulative reactor-years of commercial nuclear power operation in 33 countries. In relation to other forms of energy generation nuclear power has created the least amount of fatalities. Since 1969, zero people have died from nuclear accidents in OECD countries compared to 2,269 from coal and 1,043 from natural gas. In a 2019 report by the World Nuclear Organization concluded that “The risk of accidents in nuclear power plants is low and declining.”
Nuclear power is also much better for the environment than many other forms of energy development, as it emits no greenhouse gases or carbon dioxide. Over a reactor’s lifetime, it releases emissions which are comparable to renewable forms of energy like wind and solar. Nuclear energy also requires less land use than most other forms of energy which means less of an impact on biodiversity. There are also many misconceptions when it comes to waste generated by plants and its risk to the environment. The first is that there is no solution for the nuclear “waste” being produced, and that nuclear “waste” is deadly for 10,000 years. The truth is that all the used nuclear fuel generated in every American nuclear plant from the past 50 years would fill a football field to a depth of less than nine meters, and 90 percent of this “waste” can be reused, as it has not lost most of its energy. Used nuclear fuel can also be recycled to make new fuel and other byproducts. Most of the waste from this process will require a storage time of less than 300 years. Finally, less than 1 percent is radioactive for 10,000 years. This portion is not much more radioactive than some things found in nature and can be easily shielded to protect humans and wildlife. Nonetheless, nuclear waste is still a problem. Fortunately, new reactors and fuels are being developed to combat this problem.
Currently there are many startup companies and groups working on building new reactors and fuel. The problem with reactors in operation today is that they make nuclear waste, are not very efficient and it is possible for them to have a nuclear meltdown. Right now, 96 percent of the fuel going into the reactor comes out as waste and needs to be refined and reprocessed before being reused. A solution to this problem is to change the type of reactor fuel. Currently we use fuel rods to make nuclear fission. The problem with these rods is that they are very inefficient. Per Peterson, a professor of nuclear engineering at the university of California Berkeley has developed a new type of fuel that cannot melt. This fuel is shaped like a golf ball and has a hard ceramic shell encasing the uranium inside. Due to the fuel not being able to melt, it is much safer and efficient, as it can stay in the core for much longer so that more energy can be extracted. These fuel pellets also act like their own self-contained units so that there is no need for any backup power generators or water cooling. Another group that has worked to improve nuclear power is a startup called Transatomic Power. The company is designing a type of reactor called a molten salt reactor. These reactors run on a liquid form of uranium. Because the fuel is in a liquid form, it can stay in the reactor for much longer. This means that much more energy can be extracted and less waste will be produced. Molten salt reactors produce 50 percent less waste then conventional reactors and create 21 times more energy than the previous designs. These reactors also run at atmospheric pressure, meaning that it is impossible for the reactor to explode. Because of their design, these reactors do not require the large cooling towers and containment buildings that older reactors have. This means that reactors can be designed creatively and made smaller.
Nuclear power is also relatively cheap compared to other options. The upfront cost of building reactors is high but after that the annual cost is much lower than other options. The combined upfront and annual costs for the most recent generation of reactors is lower than conventional forms of energy like natural gas and coal. The price of nuclear power is also very comparable to other renewable forms of energy such as solar and hydro. In France they get about 75 percent of their electricity from nuclear energy and have some of the lowest electricity prices. France is also the world's largest exporter of electricity due to its very low cost of generation and gains over €3 billion per year from this. Until Mar. 2011, neighboring Germany obtained one-quarter of its electricity from nuclear energy, using 17 reactors. The figure is now about 12 percent after they decided to close seven reactors and cut nuclear for other options like solar and wind. Since cutting nuclear power, its energy prices have risen to being some of the highest in the EU.
Overall, nuclear energy is one of the best solutions to calls for renewable energy, as it is cheaper, creates more energy and is safe. Unfortunately, the phrase “you only get one chance to make a first impression” really applies here. People's first thought when they hear the word “nuclear” is mushroom clouds and Chernobyl. Unfortunately, if the word nuclear carries this stigma, the solutions available will never be put in place because of public hysteria.