Nuclear Energy: for some that word may strike fear, for some it is a confusing and indifferent topic, and yet for many others and including myself — a ray of hope, a big part of the solution in mitigating climate change. Nuclear energy is currently a hot topic in the environmental and climate activism community. Many support it, but many are strongly opposed to it. The first nuclear power plant came online in 1954, and since then the number of nuclear power plants in the world has been steadily increasing. Yet here in the United States, the opposite trend seems to be happening; the US has not built a nuclear power plant in 20 years according to the US Department of Energy. And with the recently enacted legislation on nuclear power plants in California, it will be shutting down its one last remaining commercial nuclear plant. It seems that support for nuclear energy is falling, and that is bad news for not only me, but for our planet. Nuclear energy is not the horrific dangerous energy source that popular media paints it to be — rather, it is one of the most essential energy sources for combating climate change, as it produces large quantities of cheap, carbon free, reliable energy while being relatively safe. Here I will counter all the common misconceptions and arguments against nuclear energy.
We all know that as we develop technology to be more efficient and easier to make, the
price of that technology gets cheaper, and the more efficiently and larger the quantity we produce things at, the cheaper it can be sold for as the total cost of production decreases. This is known as economies of scale, and we have seen its effects on the prices of wind and solar power. Nuclear energy has been around almost as long as both of these energy sources, so why does it seem like we have so much confusion on whether they are cheap or not? One reason is that because nuclear energy has a much higher up front cost than solar and wind, the cost of building a nuclear power plant is usually much greater than constructing solar and wind farms. So when looking at these prices, it is no wonder that solar and wind appear to be cheaper. However, if the maintenance and other costs after construction are taken into account, with the average lifespan of a nuclear power plant being 40 years, the average dollar to power value of nuclear energy is much cheaper than solar and wind, as they tend to have higher maintenance costs according to the World Nuclear Association. Another reason nuclear energy seems expensive is because the United States has much stricter regulations on building and running commercial nuclear power plants than many other countries, if we simply take a look at the regulation policies from each countries’ nuclear energy regulatory association and compare that to the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (USNRC). The fear of nuclear energy in the United States artificially drives up its price because of unnecessary restrictions that necessitate excessive regulatory paperwork. Nuclear energy is not expensive. In fact, it is cheaper than solar and wind, if proper consideration of long term costs is taken into account and extra strict regulations are abandoned.
But who is to say that these regulations are unnecessary? Are they not there to protect us from the disastrous and dangerous effects of nuclear power? Just look at what happened with the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster and Fukushima, or Three Mile Island. Nuclear energy needs strict regulations because they are so dangerous, right? No. The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was in fact not maintained well and had many issues that were built into it. Modern nuclear power plants do not have the same flaws, and therefore are much safer. The Chernobyl accident occurred due to flawed and bad safety designs and would be almost impossible to occur with modern plants according to the NEI. The chances of something similar to the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster happening are close to none with modern nuclear power plants. Because of past nuclear disasters and nuclear weapons, we have this stigma of fear around anything nuclear, yet if we look at the bigger picture — the whole image — and stop focusing on these few incidents, we can see that nuclear power is in fact not that dangerous. When we take into account all the people that were killed from the nuclear accidents, it cannot hold a candle to the number of people of who have died from oil rigging, coal mining, and gas extraction. Fossil fuel extraction jobs are some of the most dangerous jobs out there: we can see the differences by looking at fatality reports from the US Department of Labour on Mining Safety and Health, yet we choose to focus our efforts on reducing nuclear energy instead of fossil fuels. The pollution that comes from fossil fuels kills more people than any nuclear accidents. According to the World Health Organization, 2.2 million people die from air pollution each year. It is simply because these examples of pollution are not surprising and sensational that the popular media does not report it; instead, they skew our views and make nuclear energy seem much more dangerous than it actually is. In fact, nuclear energy today is just as safe, if not safer, than solar energy.
But what about the toxic byproducts, the radioactive waste produced by nuclear power? The byproducts of current nuclear reactors are highly dangerous radioactive substances. Sure, that may seem bad, but compared to the carbon dioxide that is released into the air without filtration and the scales of the pollution, it is much better than fossil fuels. In fact, for the 60 years of nuclear power the US has used, all the radioactive waste can fit in an area the size of a football field at a depth of less than 3 meters according to the Office of Nuclear Energy. Safely stored nuclear waste is much better than carbon dioxide that is just released into the air. Furthermore, the World Nuclear Association tells us that nuclear waste generated by the current reactors is actually reusable, and that reusing these fuels would reduce them into much safer material. Japan and France already do this. The only reason this is not done in the US is because we have not constructed those types of reactors due to the lack of investment in the nuclear industry stemming from the fear of nuclear power. Nuclear is consistent and reliable, and what is most important is that it will help us buy time to develop better technologies so that these green energy sources can become reliable. The battle against climate change is not a battle of technology, but a battle against time — and we are running out of that invaluable resource. Nuclear energy can help us buy the precious time we need to transition to clean energy sources.