Monday, June 27

Nuclear Energy: The Bridge to a Cleaner Future

By: Trevor Jones

When you read the headline of this article, what came to mind? Giant Simpsons-esque cooling towers looming over an indistinct grey building? People’s homes and lives crumbling away because of the Chernobyl disaster? Overly complex diagrams of atoms and blueprints of a maze of machinery?

For as long as it has existed, nuclear energy has been cloaked in mystery and fear, becoming a polarizing political issue worldwide. The argument against nuclear energy is more than valid: the looming risk of an accident and nuclear waste’s impact on the environment are the two most common reasons to oppose this source of energy. The benefits are significant, too, as nuclear energy provides a stable, consistent, relatively safe, and long-term cost-effective solution to energy without releasing the large amounts of greenhouse gases that coal, oil, and natural gas emit. So how did the public come to be so skeptical of nuclear energy?

The skepticism about nuclear energy comes from two major sources: the first instances of nuclear energy and the continuous narrative about nuclear energy that the public has adopted. The fear instilled in the public from the beginning can be attributed to the Manhattan Project, a World War II era project in which the atomic bomb was researched and created. While this was a well-kept secret during the war, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end the Pacific Theater of the War and the post-war coverage of this project became the turning point of nuclear science. It showed this complex field was not intended to be understood or used for good, but rather used only to wipe one’s enemies off the map.

Debatably, though, the most impactful blow to confidence in nuclear energy has been its public image and narrative over time. Nuclear power has struggled to gain public support in favor of its use, depicted by an even split between support and opposition in a 2019 Gallup poll of US citizens. Given the history of nuclear power, continued public hesitance to warm up to nuclear power does not come as a shock to most. The Cold War kept the threat of mutually assured destruction by nuclear means at the throats of the world for decades, which kept the public’s opinion of nuclear power fearful. Then, the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island disasters were disastrous accidents in the late 1970s to mid-1980s, and Chernobyl, in particular, caused acute human suffering across Europe, and scared many people away from nuclear energy. Even as recent as in the last election cycle, Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate for United States President in 2016, published a tweet equating nuclear energy to “weapons of mass destruction waiting to be detonated”, symbolizing public sympathies about this issue.

In terms of nuclear disasters, though, both Chernobyl and Three Mile Island (or TMI) involved a myriad of missteps – design flaws, mismanagement, etc. – but the press coverage after these disasters were instrumental in shifting the public’s thoughts on nuclear energy. With Chernobyl, the Soviet Union’s silence after the accident led to unabated damage in Ukraine, Belarus, and across the rest of the European continent. In TMI’s scenario, the public struggled with misleading information from multiple sources, confusing those reporting and following the story. If the communication between government agencies, news sources, and citizens of affected countries had been clearer and more effective, then suffering and unrest could have been minimized to a fraction of what they were in both these nuclear accidents. The loss experienced from Chernobyl was awful and still mars the people and land of Eastern Europe to this day, but sometimes these incidents beg the question of how the public would perceive nuclear power if the governments involved in the Chernobyl and TMI incidents had been transparent and effective in responding to the incidents. Regardless, at a broad level, the long-lasting damage and the miscommunications surrounding these incidents are likely the reason that these skeptical attitudes continue to persist, and they maintain as a major reason behind opposition to nuclear energy.

Given this information, it has been nearly six decades since the first nuclear power plant was constructed. More than three decades have passed since the Chernobyl incident. While accidents occur less frequently, they still happen, as seen by the Tōhoku tsunami causing disaster at Fukushima in the early 2010s. Regardless, the fact is that, as time has gone on, nuclear power has continually been grown, learned about, experimented with, and researched on. Not only have we discovered how to streamline nuclear energy to maximize efficiency, but we have learned how to run a safer plant as well. Striving to keep our government accountable for accurately informing the public about nuclear incidents and building upon safety improvements and heightened efficiency in plants due to technological advances should be top priorities in re-evaluating nuclear energy as a sustainable source.

The other issue with nuclear power is the environmental risk associated with this type of energy. While nuclear power plants directly emit no greenhouse gas emissions, they still emit these gases in the refining and producing of uranium as reactor fuel, as stated by the US Energy Information Administration, an independent energy analysis group. According to the World Nuclear Association, these emissions do not compare to the emissions that fossil fuels emit, as nuclear emits a tiny fraction of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour of electricity produced, only being beat in their CO2 emissions per KWh by wind power.

As for nuclear waste, the other prong of the environmental problems with nuclear power, much of nuclear waste is low-energy, meaning it poses a lower risk of radioactivity than the high-energy waste that is found less commonly from reactors. Nuclear waste can also be reused as reactor fuel, albeit being a product of an expensive process. In other circumstances, nuclear waste is being buried in a nearly quarter-mile deep hole in Finland. The nuclear waste issue is one that has quite a few sustainable solutions, which is good news for the plausibility of nuclear energy in the future.

Where does this leave us? One of the pivotal issues of this 2020 US election, and of the world right now, is climate change. Energy plays a crucial role in the movement towards a carbon-neutral society. Such plans emphasize the phasing out of coal and other fossil fuels as an energy source. Right here at Vanderbilt, the ‘Dores Divest campaign encourages the university to eliminate investment in fossil fuels as a form of climate activism. The campaign has been largely successful in its outreach, with DivestVU being a common discussion point among members of the Vanderbilt community.

The eventual shift from fossil fuels is a step forward for society to preserve our planet. The fossil fuel industry is shrinking as sustainable alternative energy sources become more feasible on a larger scale. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, a chart was cited that showed the different energy efficiencies by comparing the type of fuel used and the amount of electricity produced by different energy sources. Coal, oil, and natural gas ranked lowest on this list, each with less than 50% input maintained when converted from fuel into electricity. However, nuclear ranked fourth on this list, with 290% of its energy input being kept when it is converted. The other three sources that rank above it – wind, geothermal, and hydroelectric power – each have difficulties with being expanded to mass output. Strata, a policy research organization, found that wind power can be inconsistent, due to changing weather patterns. Hydroelectric and geothermal power can be expanded into further use as technology advances, but there would not be enough sustainable energy present in a nationwide energy infrastructure utilizing either of these production methods to make up for the loss of fossil fuels, similar to practically every other renewable energy source. Nuclear has the ability to be expanded to fit the output of the United States, while keeping that output consistent. Because of the efficiency of nuclear energy, the significantly lower operating cost of a nuclear plant, and the consistency of the output, it also becomes apparent that nuclear power is a financially sustainable solution to cleaner energy, as well. 

Countries like France recognized the benefits of nuclear power and built up their power grid to rely on nuclear for 75% of their nationwide energy output in the early 2010s. Now, President Emmanuel Macron is continuing to move upon former President François Hollande’s goal of pushing that percentage down to 50%, and instead replacing that 25% that was previously nuclear with renewable energy. France is well along the path of relying solely on nuclear energy, and the United States could be too, even if we are a larger country with more difference in states and regions than France, because nuclear energy fills a niche as the bridge from a fossil fuel-filled society to a world powered by renewable energy. 

In replacing fossil fuels, we can increase our proportion of energy from nuclear power, and then decrease that reliance as we expand usage of renewables. This would help nuclear serve as the crutch to lean on during the inevitable transition to a fully renewable future. Nuclear power comes with risks, but it consistently remains the solution that best balances economic feasibility, environmental sustainability, and corporal responsibility while the world works on a transition to cleaner energy.