With the American 2020 Presidential election coming up, there’s been a lot in the news about the nuclear energy policies of candidates. But what the average person knows about nuclear energy might be limited to what they saw in cartoons. Remember The Simpsons, where Homer Simpson works as a safety inspector at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant?
Yeah, we’re talking that kind of nuclear energy. Let’s learn about why it’s so important to understand its risks and rewards!
Nuclear energy is a complicated issue. In addition to only being around for less than 70 years, there’s been a lot of dangerous events around the world that have caused a lot of fear to center around nuclear energy. The 2011 Fukushima Daiichi Accident in Japan exposed lots of people to radiation. The later Marcoule Nuclear Site malfunction in France triggered feverous debates across the European Union about the safety of nuclear power plants.
A lot of discussion about nuclear power plants tends to focus on its popularity, its cost-efficiency, and general emotions people get thinking about nuclear things. Therefore, this article seeks to be as non-partisan as it can about the whole issue. That means no supporting Democrat or Republican candidates or trash-talking.
What will happen is fact talk. This means that certain things are being recognized as facts. One of these things is climate change. Whether or not you believe it is currently being supercharged by human activity, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere does allow solar radiation into the Earth’s atmosphere while keeping thermal radiation from escaping. Think of it like a one-way mirror: the carbon dioxide is “transparent” as heat enters the atmosphere, but becomes “opaque” to the heat trying to leave—it just bounces right back. Science. That’s how the process happens.
Because that’s how carbon dioxide works, it helps us understand why many people want to support energy creation technology that will reduce the carbon dioxide let out into the atmosphere as much as possible. People want that, but they also want to reduce the cost of energy production. That’s where nuclear energy comes in.
To understand how nuclear power plants create energy, we must journey to the smallest building block of the universe: the atom. The nucleus of an atom is composed of protons (positive charge) and neutrons (neutral charge), which are packed together very densely. The nucleus is held together by a great force; however, it can be split apart when it is blasted by a neutron. This process is called fission. The broken nuclei go on to break apart other nuclei in a controlled chain reaction. Nuclear fission releases energy that heats water, which then spin turbines connected to generators. Thus, electricity is created.
While the actual process of creating consumable energy is straightforward, concerns emerge when considering the aftermath. Let us consider the benefits and dangers on their science-based merit. That means not talking about what’s popular or emotion-laden, but the scale of the actual risks and rewards.
The basics data of nuclear energy is promising. One pound of uranium has as much energy potential as three million pounds of coal. Currently, nuclear power is the single largest source of low-carbon electricity in the United States. In 2017, 20% of the United States’ electricity was created at the 60 top-producing nuclear power plants.
Nuclear energy is considered a climate-friendly energy source because the process of generating power without happens without releasing carbon dioxide. Given that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the Earth’s atmosphere through preventing the escape of thermal radiation, policies and energy decisions that reduce the emission of carbon into the Earth’s atmosphere become focal points in political discussions.
Safety concerns centered around nuclear power exist. Many of these concerns center around the accidental release of radiation into the environment because of plant malfunctions. This could be deadly for people who live nearby nuclear power plants (and a recent study found that over 120 million people in the United States live within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant).
Many concerns with nuclear energy center around the long-term dangers of waste disposal. Radioactive waste is frequently stored at the nuclear plants where it is produced in large steel-lined tanks. Nuclear waste contains radioactive isotopes that do eventually decay into harmless materials. Some materials decay in a matter of hours. Others, such as Plutonium-239 (a particular kind of byproduct waste) have a half-life of 24,000 years.
Radioactive waste is dangerous because it produces fatal doses of radiation even over a short-term exposure period. If this waste contaminates groundwater or rivers, they can be consumed by humans or enter the food chain.
Radiation damages the cells that make up living organisms. High levels of radiation can kill by causing untreatable damage to internal organs, and by causing cancer. This happens because radioactive materials release energy into the environment that kill cells or mutate DNA.
Evaluating Things in the Big Picture
Ultimately decisions on whether nuclear energy is a good idea or not really seem to boil down to a short-term versus long-term perspective. Even major scientists who are recognized for their work across the globe disagree on what the best course of action is. A Letter in 2013 written by prominent climate and energy scientists said that it was important to confront climate change, but with this specific caveat:
“With the planet warming and carbon dioxide emissions rising faster than ever, we cannot afford to turn away from any technology that has the potential to displace a large fraction of our carbon emissions. Much has changed since the 1970s. The time has come for a fresh approach to nuclear power in the 21st century.”
Either way, there is broader consensus among global figures that if having to choose between nuclear energy and natural oil or gas energy, nuclear energy is a better science-based policy option. If the United States were to close it’s one-third lowest performing nuclear power plants and fill the subsequent energy gap with natural oil and gas energy, it would have a 4 to 6% increase in carbon emissions within a year.
This really highlights that while the debate between solar or hydroelectric energy and nuclear energy is more complex, there is a much broader consensus among global figures about the choice between nuclear and natural oil or gas energy. The debate between nuclear and solar or hydroelectric energy will continue to evolve as green energy technologies develop and become more efficient. However, the decision is more clear-cut when it comes to nuclear options versus natural oil or gas.
While nuclear energy has some drawbacks, in the short-term it is less damaging to the environment because of its zero-carbon emission process. Either way, decisions that affect the creation or closing of any nuclear power plants needs to be made with an awareness of current technological capacity.