Why We Still Need Nuclear Energy

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.

Author Biography

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

One response to “Why We Still Need Nuclear Energy

  1. Nuclear power is the only way to stop making CO2 that actually works.

    A Myth is Being Foisted on you:

    Fact: Renewable Energy mandates cause more CO2 to be produced, not less, and renewable energy doubles or more your electric bill. The reasons are as follows:

    Since solar “works” 15% of the time and wind “works” 20% of the time, we need either energy storage technology we don’t have or ambient temperature superconductors and we don’t have them either. Wind and solar are so intermittent that electric companies are forced to build new generator capacity that can load-follow very fast, and that means natural gas fired gas turbines. The gas turbines have to be kept spinning at full speed all the time to ramp up quickly enough. The result is that wind and solar not only double your electric bill, wind and solar also cause MORE CO2 to be produced.

    We do not have battery or energy storage technology that could smooth out wind and solar at a price that would be possible to do. The energy storage would “cost” in the neighborhood of a QUADRILLION dollars for the US. That is an imaginary price because we could not get the materials to do it if we had that much money.

    The only real way to reduce CO2 production from electricity generation is to replace all fossil fueled power plants with the newest available generation of nuclear; unless you live near Niagara Falls. Nuclear can load-follow fast enough as long as wind and solar power are not connected to the grid.

    MYTHS: The myths being perpetrated by wind turbine marketers are that:

    Wind and solar energy are free and will lower your electric bill

    and

    Wind and solar energy are CO2 free and will reduce the total CO2 produced by electricity generation.

    But

    Californians are paying twice as much for electricity as I am and Germans are paying 4 times as much as I am. The reason is renewables mandates. Illinois has 6 nuclear power plants and we are working hard to keep them. I am paying 7&1/2 cents /kilowatt hour. What are you paying?

    And

    Californians and Germans are making more CO2 per kilowatt hour than Illinoisans. It turns out that even without burning natural gas or coal to make up for the intermittency of wind and solar, wind turbines and large scale solar collectors require more concrete and steel per kilowatt hour than nuclear power does.

    FALLACIES: The fallacies in the myth are failure to do the math and failure to do all of the engineering required. The myth is easy to propagate among most people because there is quite a lot of math to do and there is a lot of engineering to learn. University electrical engineering departments offer electrical engineering degrees with specialization in power transmission [electric grids]. That is only part of the engineering that needs to be done to figure the whole thing out.

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