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The Future Is Nuclear

In a world of mass disinformation, it is easy to let opinions and speculation get in the way of facts and science.

In a world of mass disinformation, it is easy to let opinions and speculation get in the way of facts and science. It is no secret our climate is changing. What is difficult is accurately predicting the impact this change will have on the immediate and long-term futures. Due to a mainly political agenda, alternative fuels such as wind, hydroelectric, and solar power have been idolized as our planet’s saving grace. At the same time, exaggerated claims have destroyed the reputation of anything nuclear, and has made the subject almost taboo. However, when presented objectively with the facts, as well as the sheer potential of fission/fusion technology, it is understandable to see nuclear power is the most viable alternative to fossil fuels in the fight to deter climate change.

Climate change has become one of the most contentious issues in the past two decades. According to Berkeley Earth, a nonprofit climate research institute, average global land temperatures have increased 1.5 degrees Celsius over the past 250 years. 0.9 degrees of this increase came in the past 50 years. Berkeley Earth has also studied the issues related to climate change skeptics, such as the urban heating, data selection, poor station quality, and data adjustment. They have concluded these factors do not unduly bias the results. The takeaway from these studies is the undeniable fact our climate is warming, and this warming is caused, in no insignificant way, by the human burning and consumption of fossil fuels.

Analysts at Berkeley Earth believe the overall warming is concerning, but the far more pressing matter is the amount of air pollution in the developing world, such as China, India, and parts of Eastern Europe. This air pollution attributes to more deaths worldwide than AIDS, Malaria, Breast Cancer, and Tuberculosis; between 3 and 7 million are victims of worsened cardiorespiratory disease, brought on by the harmful particulates spewed into the air.The source of this pollution includes electric power plants, industrial facilities, automobiles, biomass burning, and fossil fuels used in homes and factories for heat. It is clear to see the massive reliance on fossil fuels such as petroleum, natural gas, and coal on producing affordable energy has degraded local and global environments to the point of great trepidation.

In the developed world, there is a feverous debate about the implications of and solutions to this climate change problem. In the United States, the fossil fuels lobby, paid for by the oil and coal industries such as ExxonMobil, Shell, and BP, have donated large sums of money to the Republican party. The Republicans and those of their ilk have been notorious for encouraging climate change skepticism and discouraging environmental regulations. In turn, environmental activists have pushed Democrats to bring about a transition to solar, hydroelectric, and wind powers as alternatives to fossil fuels. While these pundits argue policy and point fingers, progress is underway. For example, energy consumption by source for the United States in 2015 is as follows: 37.1% petroleum, 23.8% natural gas, 22.5% coal, 7.3% various renewable sources, and 8.5% nuclear. In 2002, nuclear energy made up 20% of the country’s energy consumption, indicating a decline of almost 12%. The use of renewable energies increased by nearly 4% from 2004 to 2015, resulting in a reduction of 7.4% decrease in carbon dioxide emissions (eia.gov).

A significant factor in a developing country’s industrialization is cheap, affordable energy. Without a low-cost power source, whatever growth these economies see immediately falters. Providing the energy needed to support development at an acceptable cost, and ensuring that it is used while protecting the local environment, is a considerable challenge. It becomes even more of a problem when also trying to contribute to the global low carbon goals. The increase in renewables in the developing world is a step in the right direction, but if an economic powerhouse such as the US must rely on the cheapest energy source, how can emerging economies around the globe expect to transition from fossil fuels to more expensive alternatives?

Nuclear power is the containment of fission energy, usually through the generation of heat in steam turbines. In nuclear power plants across the globe, uranium or plutonium is used as fuel and split, creating kinetic energy, triggering further fission events and creating a nuclear chain reaction. These events generate heat, which boils the water in which the fuel is immersed. This water is vaporized into pressurized steam, powering a steam turbine and thus creating electricity. A kilogram of nuclear fuel will produce three million times more energy than a kilogram of coal. Though the nuclear fuel produces radioactive waste, each nuclear reactor has built-in safety mechanisms to shut down the reaction down if unsafe conditions are detected. Nuclear energy is converted in over 450 plants around the world, accounting for 11% of the energy production. While nuclear power is still a carbon emitting energy source, over the course of a nuclear reactor’s life cycle, it has emission levels lower than renewables, when renewables are taken as a single power source. Nuclear plants are admittedly expensive when construction costs and regulatory costs are factored in. However, these costs are allocated over the lifetime of the nuclear plant and result in $96 per megawatt hour, which is expensive compared to natural gas at $64 per megawatt hour but is significantly cheaper than solar at $134 per megawatt hour.

A primary concern with nuclear energy is the disposal of waste. The radioactive fuel becomes toxic when depleted and may remain toxic for thousands of years. Presently, most waste is stored on-site at the nuclear plants, ready to be disposed of when the government approves disposal. The issue with the waste is not necessarily the toxicity, but local and federal governments refusing to allow viable disposable options to remove the residue. Innovations in waste disposal have exceeded the regulatory standards put in place to prevent waste dumping. Nuclear physicist and developer of the Integral Fast Reactor, Dr. Charles Till, said in an interview with PBS regarding the potential of nuclear energy, “It wasn’t the fact that nuclear, as I later came to believe, was also the best form of energy environmentally. But it was simply that the humankind is going to need vast amounts of energy in the future. Here was the way.” He and other nuclear experts developed the Integral Fast Reactor to combat the nuclear waste problem and to recycle the fuel. There is enough depleted uranium in a storage facility in Paduka, Kentucky — waiting to be recycled- to power the United States for 75 years.

While the costs of nuclear are higher than the price of fossil fuels, it is only so because of the capital construction and decommissions costs when building and closing nuclear plants. With innovations in nuclear technology by companies such as NuScale Power and Terra Power, reactors are becoming increasingly cheaper, as well as more efficient. These companies receive massive donations from well-known scientists and philanthropists, such as Bill Gates.

The single most crucial reason nuclear power is the only viable option in the fight against climate change is that of its nearly limitless electricity storage capacity. With the demand for electricity in emerging economies growing at exponential rates, renewable energies cannot be relied upon to meet these needs, due to the large-scale storage facilities required. The Australian government conducted a study of Australian power needs in a hypothetical scenario in which 100% of the energy production comes from renewable sources in 2017. The results of this study indicated the magnitude of the Australian energy storage task. Simulations resulted in a five-fold increase in capital costs of various renewable energies, leading to a cost increase in already expensive energy sources. The government concluded that, while renewables are necessary, a combination of renewables and nuclear powers was required to meet the Australian energy storage task.

Nuclear power technologies and their implementation are cheaper and more efficient than renewable energies on a large scale. However, nuclear energy is seen in a negative light by a significant portion of the world’s population. The destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima at the end of World War two opened the eyes of the world to the potential power of fission energy. Perception of nuclear energy continued to trend negative during the following half-century, as the conflict and tension between the United States and the Soviet Union seemed to remind the world of possible nuclear war and mutually assured destruction. Even though this Cold War has ended, much of the anti-nuclear sentiment remains. Hyperbolic representations of nuclear energy — such as the 1979 film China Syndrome — by Hollywood and other media have continued to sway public opinion regarding the safety of this technology. Several large-scale meltdowns at Power plants, including the 1986 incident in Chernobyl, the Three Mile Island incident in 1979, and the Fukushima disaster in 2011, only serve to exacerbate the fear of anything nuclear. These accidents were all followed by an increase in adverse attitude concerning Nuclear Energy. These meltdowns, however, were not nearly as catastrophic as they have been made out to be.

Take, for example, the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan. This accident happened on March 11, 2011. It was the result of an enormous earthquake and the subsequent tsunami, combined with a power company that was not well prepared for such an event. After the accident, radioactive elements were released or leaked from three reactors into the environment. People living in a 30-km radius around the power plant were evacuated. After the initial earthquake, the active reactors in the plant shut themselves down, as they are supposed to do in an event such as this. However, the tsunami disabled the emergency backup generators, which led to inefficient cooling and meltdown of three reactors. Following an investigation of the incident, the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission found that the causes of the accident had been foreseeable. The plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company, had failed to meet necessary safety requirements such as risk assessment, preparing for containing collateral damage, and developing evacuation plans. Had the electrical company followed regulatory protocols the meltdown would never have occurred because of the tsunami. Tokyo Electric Power Company has reported the levels of radiation is decreasing at a consistent rate, yet the Japanese media reports the opposite.

There is no simple solution to the problem of negative perception of nuclear energy. The best way to persuade those with anti-nuclear sentiment is through education and objective discussion. Public understanding of nuclear power is a crucial factor in whether it is used in a country to produce electricity. It is up to the governments of the developed world to advocate for and subsidize nuclear plants in countries with emerging economies and increasing demand for power.

Our planet is facing a climate crisis, with rising temperatures and deadly air pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels and other carbon-emitting energy sources. A transition must occur to cleaner energy, such as solar, wind, and hydroelectric sources. These energies are useful in combating climate change, but the source of power that will contribute the most to the fight for the environment is nuclear energy, due to advancements in technology and high storage capacity. The change in public perception of nuclear power must go from overwhelmingly negative to positive to implement this energy source across the globe. It is imperative to transition away from fossil fuels with renewable energies, but of equal importance is a nuclear renaissance around the world. What can you do about it?