In light of looming climate change, the need to switch to renewable sources of energy that emit far less CO2 and methane greenhouse gases (GHG) into the atmosphere is crucial. Even among the leading low-carbon alternatives – wind, hydro, solar – nuclear power presents the most compelling case for energy intense, GHG-emission free power.
The impact of worldwide global warming extends to include extreme weather conditions, geographical shifting of biomes, melting of glaciers and rising sea levels. All due to the heating of the earth’s surface from excess greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the excess CO2 and GHG is due to human activities, principally from the use of burning fossil fuels for energy. Nuclear power, however, is a sustainable source of energy similar to wind, solar and hydro power that supports global human activity – except that while it produces 11% of the world’s electricity, it does so without contributing to global warming.
Despite the viability of nuclear power, it doesn’t have the same visibility in the public eye as solar power and other forms of electricity generation partly due to public hesitation in light of the Fukushima incident and other nuclear disasters. However, nuclear power is the safest energy production today with no fatalities from radiation in the operation of a commercial nuclear power plant, and new, advanced nuclear plants are designed to be even safer and cleaner. Compare this to the estimated 1 million deaths caused annually by pollution from burning coal, not to mention the thousands who die in coal mining accidents worldwide each year.
Nuclear power facilities are currently the most reliable source of power in the US, operating at a 90 percent capacity with electricity available at any time of day or night. Wind and solar require large swathes of open land to generate the same amount of power as their nuclear counterparts, and are also highly susceptible to variances in weather patterns. Moreover, nuclear generates only tiny quantities of waste material, which can be easily monitored and managed, and has been reported to have the least environmental impact overall. Contrast the impact of coal and oil shale strip mining and the disastrous consequences of yearly oil spills, and the differences are astounding. Fossil fuel burning emits massive amounts of controlled pollutants into the atmosphere, none of which are released by nuclear power plants. Additionally, Direct Energy has reported that for the same amount of electricity generated, burning coal produces 100 times the amount of radioactive material than nuclear power. Continuing our ties with carbon-intensive power sources (such as coal and oil) simply isn’t sustainable.
A number of efforts to reawaken interest in nuclear power among the public are continuing with Nuclear Science Week (October 19-24, 2015). Beginning in 2010, the week continues as a national celebration to focus national, regional and local interest on all aspects of nuclear science featuring nuclear power workers, defense personnel, teachers and others involved in the industry. Likewise, the business-focused Nuclear Energy Business Opportunities Conference was recently held in the UK, and in about a month, the signatories to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change will be meeting in France for the COP21 meeting.
Two timely results of Nuclear Science Week this year could be emphasis on the continuing use of nuclear energy as a valuable and irreplaceable component of the US Clean Power Plan, and the generation of enthusiasm in support of advanced nuclear power as a renewable and sustainable contributor to combating climate change. COP21 is the 21st session of the conference in which they will debate and make decisions regarding efforts to combat climate change on an international level, with the aim of keeping global warming below 2°C. Nuclear power, as a concentrated energy source with ultra-low GHG emissions, should be part of the worldwide effort to limit global warming, and will expectantly have light shed upon in these deliberations.
While it’s undeniable that great strides have been made in regards to solar, wind, hydroelectric and other types of renewable energy, they can’t do it by themselves. Though the amount they contribute to the global energy landscape has risen in the past decade, renewables are still not expected to completely eliminate the use of fossil-fuel-burning power plants anytime in the near future. When climate change is acknowledged as the most pressing concern facing the world today, all measures that combat increasing CO2 and other greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere merit utmost consideration. Nuclear power, being nearly carbon-free in its operations as well as cost-efficient, is ready and here to play a crucial role in solving the climate change crisis.
Beth Kelly is a freelance writer and blogger from the Windy City, Chicago, IL. After graduating from DePaul University in 2011 she went on to teach English abroad for several years, returning to the United States in 2013. Her personal interests lie at the intersection of art and ecology; in the future she hopes to continue to focus on ways in which young people can utilize their creativity to confront climate change. She has a rabbit named Anthony Hopkins. Find her on Twitter @bkelly_88
*Cover image ‘nuclear power thriving in England‘ by redjar