Updated: Dec 15, 2020
When you think of the word “nuclear”, what’s the first image that comes to mind?
Is it an atom stamped on a 1950's-style science textbook?
How about a happy boy of yesteryear playing with an Atomic Energy Lab (to the vast bemusement of future generations)?
Or, does the mind go to a darker place — recalling scenes from the intriguing (yet woefully unscientific) HBO miniseries Chernobyl?
Representations of nuclear energy in popular culture vary widely, and we all know it can be a pretty divisive topic. At the same time, climate scientists have been sounding the alarm for decades with a clear message: without safe and expanded nuclear power, humanity will struggle to meet the Paris Agreement’s goal of keeping global warming under 2 degrees Celsius.
And yet, nuclear plants are increasingly getting shut down, years ahead of schedule, and being replaced with fossil fuels— despite the fact that this method of producing energy is literally killing us. The World Health Organization reports that at least one-third of deaths from strokes, lung cancer, and heart disease are caused by air pollution, fueled by fossil fuel energy production. So, why get rid of nuclear plants when keeping them can mean saving lives?
In 2019, Americans were still evenly split on whether nuclear energy is a good idea. Part of the reason is our conditioned fear response to nuclear’s hyped-up associations with meltdowns and weapons. But here's some good news: in 2020, 57% of Americans favored further investment in research and development for modern nuclear reactors. This shows us more people are likely to be supportive if they're aware of the advancements being made in reactor technologies— and how those could provide lasting, direct benefits to our climate and our health.
So, let’s dive into what nuclear energy is, exactly; the considerations of safety and waste; some of its key advantages; how much it can cost; and how nuclear fits into broader plans for bold climate action.
What is Nuclear Energy?
A good place to start is by answering a related question: where does [most of] our electricity come from?
Most electricity is generated by burning either coal or natural gas. The heat boils water to drive turbines, creating electrical current. Burning the fossil fuel creates a chemical reaction, where its chemical bonds rearrange so that the byproduct is primarily water and carbon dioxide gas.
We can also generate electricity by producing a nuclear reaction, which actually releases millions of times more energy than a chemical reaction. In a nuclear reaction, a small amount of mass gets converted into energy in the form of heat. We can create a nuclear reaction either by splitting heavy elements (like uranium) into smaller pieces, or by fusing together light elements like hydrogen and deuterium.
The reactors used in most nuclear plants today are fission reactors. In a fission reactor, the nuclear reaction sustains itself through a chain reaction process that produces heat, which combines with a reactor’s cooling agent to create steam. The steam makes turbines move, which drives a generator, which creates electricity.
Is Nuclear Energy Safe?
The idea of smashing the very building blocks of matter is pretty cool. We’re Godzilla, and atoms are the Lego city our brother made. But is this immense power something we should really be messing with?
Just in case you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t heard of Fukushima, Three Mile Island, or Chernobyl, let’s pause here to look at the worst that humanity’s use of nuclear energy has wrought on our world.
In 2011, a tsunami hit Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, exploding parts of it and releasing radioactive materials into the surrounding environment. About 600 people died due to the conditions of the evacuation, and many continue to suffer from psycho-social impacts to this day. And while one person did die from radiation exposure, the majority were exposed to less than a third of what the average person picks up in a year under normal circumstances.
Three Mile Island
The most serious nuclear accident in U.S. history occurred at Three Mile Island in 1979. This partial meltdown deeply frightened the entire country and redefined U.S. nuclear safety and oversight. So, how bad was it? Monitoring teams collected thousands of samples from the area, scrutinizing everything from the air to milk and food. They found little effect on neither the environment nor human health. The two million people closest to the damaged reactor were exposed to about 1/6th of the radiation you'd get during a chest X-ray.
In 1986, an accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant (located in modern-day Russia) spread radiation throughout three countries. An evacuation prevented severe harm to the most at-risk population, and though 134 emergency workers tragically died, the five million residents of the contaminated areas received very little exposure.
Still, Chernobyl was a disaster that caused significant harm to the people of the region. In the following decades, about four thousand people found out they had thyroid cancer from drinking contaminated milk as children during the time of the accident. Also, recent studies have shown a rise in leukemia among people who were exposed to very high doses, such as emergency responders and recovery workers.
When discussing nuclear energy, there is no question: the accident at Chernobyl hurt people, and we cannot downplay or look away from that. Learning from mistakes is what helps us build a safer, healthier, more prosperous future.
It's also beneficial to keep the incident in perspective, and view nuclear in its broader energy context, alongside fossil fuels. For example, more lives have been lost in coal mining accidents in the last ten years than the total lost due to Chernobyl (the worst nuclear accident in history).
Four Benefits of Nuclear Energy
1. Low to no impact on climate or air quality
Nuclear produces the largest amount of energy by far, with one of the smallest rates of associated greenhouse gas emissions.
In the US, over half of our emissions-free electricity comes from nuclear power plants. In 2019 alone, American nuclear plants provided so much electricity that they prevented 476 million tons of CO2 from being spewed into the atmosphere by fossil fuel power stations.
The fact that our remaining nuclear plants have not been replaced by fossil fuels (yet) also prevented millions of tons of microscopic particulate matter from entering the air. Particulate matter is the primary component of air pollution, so this is a huge win for air quality, which kills seven million people per year globally.
Every year we don’t replace fossil fuels, we pay an increasingly steep price on our health, especially the most vulnerable among us. For example, 77,000 children miss school each day due to asthma. And, for low-income families, a missed school lunch can mean their child misses lunch, period, and suffers from hunger and malnutrition.
It might be surprising to learn that nuclear is actually the world’s safest energy source; in terms of the number of deaths associated with it, it actually ranks the lowest out of all other major energy sources.
Nuclear plants run at full capacity 24/7 about 93% of each year. (That’s almost double coal’s 47.5%, and a little over 1.6 times natural gas’ 56.8%.)
4. Job creator
Half a million people work in nuclear energy today, earning higher salaries than their local averages.
What About the Waste?
Like fluffy feathered dinosaurs, this is one of those things people don’t want to admit because the truth just isn’t as exciting. Contrary to popular belief, nuclear waste is not some evil green liquid oozing everywhere and spawning superheroes. Nope. In fact, nuclear waste is tiny and solid.
The entire “dump” produced by the U.S. since the 1950s can fit in a single football field. (Compare that to the destruction wrought just by mountaintop removal — a form of coal mining that has obliterated a cumulative area the size of Delaware and poisoned nearby towns with cancers, respiratory disease, and birth defects.)
The small amount of nuclear waste that does exist can be recycled into fuel for modern nuclear reactors. Generation IV reactors, such as the molten salt reactor, which uses salts as a coolant instead of water, are designed to be safer and more efficient than the old guard— and, yes, they eat nuclear waste!
As for shipping this stuff (whether for fuel or storage): to date, there has been no spill or exposure that has put anyone or anything at risk. Americans' hyped-up fear about nuclear waste or other safety issues has been going down in recent years, and a majority of us are in favor of modern reactors.
Nuclear Energy and Renewables
The unfortunate thing about renewables, like solar and wind, is that they require very specific conditions to produce energy: solar panels don’t work without sunlight, and wind turbines don’t spin without wind.
The fact that renewables are an intermittent power source means they can't really output energy on demand, as other sources can. By 2024, it’s expected that emerging technologies will allow for the storage of over 5.4 gigawatts in the U.S., which would be great— except we need about 25 times that to get even 80% of our electricity from renewables.
A stable electricity grid, especially in the near future, requires a baseload power source with the ability to output electricity day or night, gale or doldrums. The U.S. uses a combination of nuclear and fossil fuels to provide baseload power, but many nuclear plants are getting retired early, and they aren’t being replaced with renewables; most often, fossil fuels take their place. Nuclear plants have 1.5 - 2 times the capacity of fossil fuel ones, so for every nuclear plant that gets shut down, we’re most likely adding the equivalent of 1.5 to 2 new fossil fuel plants— dumping tens of millions of tons of CO2 into our warming atmosphere.
The Price Tag
Nuclear is more expensive than most other energy sources… at least, it is in the United States. In Asia, it tends to be about half the cost. Why the huge difference?
One reason is the US government’s poor management practices when working with the nuclear industry. For example, they’ve allowed plant construction to start before its design is complete, and have failed to include construction experts or fabricators on the design team. But even with proper oversight and foresight, the process of building massive, complex, custom nuclear reactors can be inherently difficult to do cost-effectively.
That’s why small modular reactors (SMRs) like these are becoming so popular. They total about $3 billion per plant— less than half the cost of a traditional nuclear reactor. SMRs are designed to fit together from pre-fabricated, standardized parts that are mass-produced in a factory. The design is approved once. The modules are shipped to each site and fit together with comparatively minimal effort. The result? An adorable little baby nuclear plant that's far cheaper, and also safer, than its big brother.
Expectations for the New Administration
According to President-elect Joe Biden, the Green New Deal (GND) “will pay for itself” and “is a crucial framework for meeting the climate challenges we face”... but he also does not support it. The GND has become a tribalistic marker for one’s allegiance to or hatred of the political left, and the President-elect intends to forge solid policy while avoiding political feuds.
The Biden Plan intends to make U.S. electricity generation carbon-free by 2035, with zero emissions by 2050. The plan earmarks $2 trillion for clean energy, including the development of small modular reactors and an agency devoted to affordable clean technologies. The agency should help the U.S. achieve Biden’s clean energy target by pursuing, among other things, advanced nuclear reactors.