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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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Should We Rethink Nuclear Power?

nuclear plants

While it seems to fly in the face of everything we believe and have been taught about nuclear power, it may actually be the safest form of power production that we have. Ironically, the immense potency of the power of splitting an atom is simultaneously what makes nuclear weapons so dangerous as well as what makes nuclear power so safe.

Despite high-profile nuclear disasters like Chernobyl in Ukraine (then the Soviet Union), Fukushima in Japan, and Three Mile Island in the United States, the deaths related to nuclear meltdowns are actually very few. In fact, climate scientists Pushker Kharecha and James Hanson discovered that overall, nuclear energy actually saves lives--their study found that up until now, nuclear power has already saved nearly two million lives that would have been lost to air pollution-related deaths from the contamination that would have been produced by other, more traditional, sources of energy.

Nuclear power is an incredibly clean form of energy thanks to its staggering efficiency. The uranium used to produce nuclear power has the ability to create a whopping one million times more heat than equal masses of fossil fuels or even gunpowder. Nuclear power has the valuable ability to create massive amounts of heat without creating fire, and therefore it produces no smoke. This means that it’s a much, much cleaner alternative as compared to fossil fuels, which cause seven million premature deaths per year (according to data provided by the World Health Organization) thanks to the massive amount of smoke produced by the industry.

While renewable resources like wind and solar are also much, much cleaner alternatives to the fossil fuel industry, with negligible levels of emissions, nuclear has a lot of benefits that renewables can’t compete with. One of these is that although nuclear plants create massive amounts of energy, they take up very little space thanks to their energy density. Even in places where the sun shines the majority of the time, like in California, a solar farm takes up 450 times more space than a nuclear plant to produce the same amount of energy.

On top of taking up far less space than renewable energy production, nuclear also requires a much, much smaller quantity of materials and therefore produces considerably less waste. Put simply, nuclear is far more efficient and energy-dense than either solar or wind. In fact, according to a fact sheet published by the Nuclear Energy Institute, the entire nuclear industry in the United States, one of the biggest energy-consuming cultures per capita in the world, produces just 2,000 metric tons of used nuclear fuel rods each year, or just a single soda can’s worth of waste per person served by nuclear energy per year. Related: Vietnam’s Energy Dilemma Is About To Become A Crisis

Michael Shellenberger, president of independent research and policy organization Environmental Progress and a Time Magazine “Hero of the Environment,” sums the matter up simply: “the energy density of the fuel determines its environmental and health impacts.” In his think piece titled “Why Renewables Can’t Save the Planet” Shellenberger goes on to say, “It’s true that you can stand next to a solar panel without much harm while if you stand next to a nuclear reactor at full power you’ll die. But when it comes to generating power for billions of people, it turns out that producing solar and wind collectors, and spreading them over large areas, has vastly worse impacts on humans and wildlife alike.”

Despite the strong case for nuclear, however, it remains a hard sell in the United States thanks to a poor public image and overblown safety concerns as well as an adverse political climate. Even those politicians who are pushing for green energy reform are simultaneously pulling away from nuclear. With all of the solid evidence in its favor and an ever-increasing need to clean up our energy act, what more will it take for nuclear to become part of the United States’ energy future?

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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  • F Falstaff on March 07 2019 said:
    Well said. France built a clean power grid via nuclear 40 years ago, and built their fleet in 15 years. The US can too.
  • Jan van Eck on March 07 2019 said:
    I would note that the reference to the Three Mile Island reactor mishap (technically, to the No. 2 reactor, a Babcock & Wilcox unit from fifty years ago, designed to run on pressurized water) was not a failure at all. I would qualify the reactor event as a success, in that the plant did what it was designed to do: totally contain the event to the plant itself, inside the containment dome.

    There were zero deaths or injuries to both plant personnel and civilians in the county. A follow-up study showed no cancer clusters. When a piece of machinery mis-functions (in this case, a partial meltdown of a part of the core) and the aftermath is totally contained, then the event is a success, not a failure.

    While new-design reactors are maddeningly not being built, due to public hysteria, ultimately reactors will again be part of, and I predict a big part of, the production of electric power. The old designs will be retired; new, fail-safe designs will come into production. Until that time, once natural gas becomes expensive, you can expect to pay more for power. Nuke power has the potential to be seriously cheap power.
  • Lee James on March 08 2019 said:
    I think the question of whether or not to build nuclear power plants is an important one. In the very least, we should do enough in the field to find out whether touted design improvements work.

    In addition, nuclear's ability to offset a portion of the fossil fuels that are otherwise burned is valuable. I think it's a case of finding the right balance -- keep moving forward with nuclear, but minimize mining, reactor and waste disposal health hazards.

    Nuclear may cost a more in life-cycle cost studies, but right now the planet probably needs to get out from underneath carbon dumped in our air.
  • Rudolf Huber on March 11 2019 said:
    Nuclear is an obvious choice for covering our energy needs of now and the future. We just must come to see nuclear energy and especially nuclear waste for what it really is. Burying it deep underground in abandoned mines is not the way. Its expensive, its unsafe and you don't see very well what happens. The French have shown how it should be done. If you put all the nuclear waste on earth into an abandoned valley in the desert and stacked it up in the open the mountains would prevent meaningful radiation from escaping. The most dangerous stuff can be poured into glass. The facility could cheaply and easily be roofed and walled in order to protect it from the elements. And all the worlds nuclear waste could go there. But as I said, covering the full fuel cycle is a much smarter option. Just ask the French - they know how. Nuclear that is well maintained and not being played with is very, very safe. It's the humans that are not safe.
  • Craig Phillips on March 11 2019 said:
    I don't like pressure water reactors that use solid fuel, but there is an alternative; I saw an old interview with Alvin Weinburg where he spoke about the "light water" (solid fuel with pressured water) reactor; my understanding is that he was the one who filed the first ever patent for a pressure water reactor, and it was his reactor design that was first installed into the Nautilus submarine. In the interview he shared his conviction that the pressure water reactor if installed into a Navy submarine at around 70 MW size would be okay because a navy sub would easily handle the required mass to include the necessary shielding, and also because the military crew would be highly technical and highly disciplined. However he went on to say that when it came to using pressure water reactors to civilian power generation, in reactor capacity sizes of up to 1000 MW he commented "you just couldn't guarantee the safety". The good news is that he went on to work on the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment at Oak Ridge National Laboratories through the 1960's and into the early 70's where he oversaw the building and operating of a 9 MW molten salt reactor pilot plant over a 3 year period - that was a "fluid fuel" (uranium fuel mixed in with molten salt as a fluid fuel). The reactors could never experience "melt down" ( as the fuel is already "melted"), and the reactor operated generating temperatures up to 1200 degrees C, yet always remained at atmospheric pressure, so no need for massively thick specialised vessels to constrain super-heated water just dying to escape and cause a problem. In addition using nuclear fuel in fluid form means the fuel can be 99% used up before more needs to go into the reactor due to the fluid fuel having the most surface area available for reaction - compare that to solid fuel reactors where the fuel rods have to be replaced after only consuming 1% or less of the potential fuel. In fact, the 65,000 tons of solid fuel nuclear waste already in the USA could be reconstituted into molten salt form and used for decades to generate zero carbon power while actually REDUCING America's stockplies of nuclear waste from solid fuel reactors. This type of reactor is the answer and by the end of the 2020's I have no doubt we will see these reactors commercialised and available - my only hope is that governments everywhere under the sway from activist types such as AOC and her brainless cohorts will facilitate massive miss-allocation of capital building (by comparison to molten salt reactors) almost useless windmills and solar farms and once they are seen to be the waste they are, and the molten salt reactors begin to roll out across the world we'll be left for decades having to pay for all those dead money "green" energy projects.

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