The case for nuclear power

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Here are three surprising facts. The first: Nuclear power is the largest source of carbon-free energy in the US right now, supplying 20 percent of US electricity. The second: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that to forestall climate catastrophe, we need significant investments in nuclear energy. The third: Many environmental groups fighting climate change abhor nuclear power. A 2019 letter to Congress, signed by over 600 environmental advocacy groups, calls for an end to US nuclear power as part of a Green New Deal. The Sierra Club is “unequivocally opposed to nuclear energy.” Greenpeace believes “nuclear energy has no place in a safe, clean, sustainable future.” 

These three facts left me a bit confused. With a climate catastrophe looming over our planet’s future, why would many climate change activists so vehemently oppose our largest source of carbon-free energy? 

Their opposition boils down to three largely unfounded concerns, which I will discuss in turn: danger, waste, and necessity (or lack thereof).

Danger: 

How dangerous is nuclear power? Well, let’s look at the data. A good metric for the danger of an energy source is deaths per terawatt hour. Here are the stats, according to Our World in Data: Coal:30; Oil: 18.4; Wind: 0.035; Hydro: 0.024; Nuclear: 0.01-0.074 (two studies are cited). Nuclear doesn’t seem dangerous at all. In fact, by many estimates, rooftop solar panels kill significantly more people per TWh (terawatt-hour) than nuclear, because roof installations are so perilous. 

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 mining nuclear materials. But Chernobyl was an outlier: 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 radiation death count of: one. 

More people die every two days from road accidents than have died from nuclear power in the past 100 years. And that statistic includes the Chernobyl meltdown, the recurrence of which modern reactor designs have made impossible. 

Humans are terrible at estimating risks; we fear flying but not driving. Nuclear power is no different. A sober look at the data gives worldwide nuclear a very good safety track record, and US nuclear an astounding one. 

Waste: 

Yes, current nuclear power plants do produce waste, but misconceptions about nuclear waste abound. Radioactive waste isn’t some liquid sludge, as depicted in The Simpsons. Nuclear waste is basically solid metal, often rods. Currently, in the US, it is safely stored at nuclear plants themselves, often encased in steel and concrete. 

This nuclear waste can, in fact, be recycled into fuel, because nuclear plants only deplete a fraction of their uranium. This is what France does (France, incidentally, gets seventy percent of its electricity from nuclear). A more long-term solution to the nuclear waste problem is burial, where waste is encased in steel and concrete and placed deep in geological repositories. 

Remember, we produce all kinds of harmful chemicals making things we need. Solar panels themselves use toxic metals that all too often end up in landfills. Nuclear waste is carefully stored, can be recycled, can be buried and does not pose the kinds of dangers anti-nuclear activists claim. 

Do we even need nuclear energy? 

The risks imposed by nuclear energy disasters and waste are vastly overstated by nuclear-skeptics, but that doesn’t mean those risks don’t exist. Thus, many wonder whether we need nuclear at all. Can’t we beat climate change with just renewables?

We have to first reckon with the fact that global energy production will continue to rise for at least the next few decades, as low and middle income countries develop. As people in low income countries get wealthier, they will consume more food, goods and energy. We shouldn’t see this as a bad thing, or try to stop it: Escaping dire poverty is a massive moral achievement (greater food security, better education, better healthcare, better lives). What is bad is when countries meet rising energy needs with coal (as China and India do).

Solar and wind face two big hurdles to taking up a more sizable burden of overall electricity production (currently they combine to a paltry seven percent of world electricity production). Solar and wind are not particularly energy dense, so meeting rising demand for energy and wind requires vast amounts of land. Comparing energy per unit area of land, you’ll find that solar and wind respectively require 75 and 300 times more land than nuclear. 

According to environmentalist Mark Lynas’s calculations–based on Greenpeace’s optimistic plan in which wind power 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 provide just 39 percent of global electricity needs by 2030, you would need to cover a land mass 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 that’s just the start, since this calculation ignores non-electricity energy consumption and doesn’t even begin to take into account post-2030 increased energy demand.

Another problem is intermittency. When the sun don’t shine and the wind don’t blow, panels and turbines don’t produce electricity. That poses a massive problem when you consider how much battery space would be required to store all the energy to power an entire country during a few days of minimal sun and wind (or even just through the night). The intermittency problem in California has forced them not only to pay neighboring states to take excess solar energy during peaks but also to rely on fossil fuels to supply energy during solar troughs. 

My point is not that renewables cannot theoretically meet rising energy needs. Maybe you could, with vast amounts of land, colossal investments in batteries (note the environmental harms in battery production and disposal), and hydroelectric environmental damage. Rather, my point is that it is vastly easier to rapidly decarbonize with investments in nuclear. Nuclear power is just not the pandora’s box anti-nuclear activists make it out to be. 

Nuclear innovation: 

Recent innovations in nuclear energy are making a nuclear future quite appealing. Generation IV nuclear plants (as opposed to the decades-old Generation II plants we still run in the US) further address the anti-nuclear concerns about safety and waste. 

Gen IV plants can use existing nuclear waste as fuel. They require refueling very infrequently. They have passive safety mechanisms, meaning overheating automatically triggers a shutdown (without human intervention) and meltdowns are virtually impossible. And some Gen IV designs are modular, meaning they can be produced at scale and easily shipped to developing countries. 

Learning from our mistakes:

In a way, we’ve been at this crossroads before. Seeing the harm of nuclear weapons, the green movement spent much of the 1970s protesting nuclear power and getting plants shut down. You know what replaced many of those nuclear plants? Coal. And while many in the green movement have come to understand the necessity of nuclear power, it is still somewhat taboo. 

There’s reason for hope. For the first time in nearly five decades, the Democratic party has endorsed nuclear power in their platform, albeit subtly. And, oddly enough, nuclear power enjoys majority support among Republicans, making it a bipartisan issue. 

Let us not miss this opportunity to forestall climate disaster. Let us not be tricked by fear-mongering in the face of data. Rather, let us use the insights of 20th century physics and 21st century innovation to usher in a prosperous, carbon-free future for all! 

Jonah Garnick ’23 is from Weston, Mass.