Nuclear Power Is Not Scary Energy

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

Eunbi Jeong, C+S ’18

(Source: Bjoern Schwarz)

Nuclear power can often inspire thoughts of wanton destruction. I know it did for me. My grandparents, who lived through World War II, used to tell me stories about the devastation at Nagasaki and Hiroshima. I considered nuclear weapons to be humanity’s worst invention, a characterization I carried over to nuclear power. Because I had such a bad image of nuclear weapons, nuclear power, to me, was the most dangerous energy source on the planet. But all that has started to change recently as I have begun to read my supervisor James Hansen’s papers.

Hansen, the former director of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, now directs the Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions program at the Earth Institute. He has been vocal that nuclear power must be part of the energy mix to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. In a recent paper he co-authored, he shows that fossil fuel burning has far more harmful effects on human health than nuclear plants. Take the Fukushima disaster, no one has died from the radiation during the 2012 nuclear accident. Instead, the estimated 16,000 deaths have been attributed to the chaotic evacuation of the area.

I also learned that nuclear energy has been widely underestimated compare to other renewable energies. Unlike what I have been hearing in the news about solar and wind becoming the major energy sources in countries with sustainable development, these renewable energy sources account for only a fraction of the total global energy consumption (3.6 percent to be exact). This number—a combination of both solar and wind—is smaller than nuclear power’s share of 4.4 percent.

1965-2017 BP Statistical Review of World Energy, 1900-1965 assumed proportional to CO2 emissions normalized at 1965. (Source: Sato and Hansen)

When I asked Hansen more about his views on nuclear power, he told me that there is no perfect energy source, that even solar and wind are intermittent. He explained that he is not advocating nuclear energy is the best energy, but instead believes that it should be a matter of objectively choosing which energies work best for each country. He also mentioned the waste problem for solar—the cost of environmental effects of digging up rare earths for solar panels and energy-storing batteries—would become much greater than the waste problem for nuclear power.

Until this point, I had rarely heard about the downsides of solar energy. Even when I was taking a course in solar development, I hardly learned about the dangerous environmental and health impacts. For instance, I did not know that materials for solar panels contain high levels of toxic chemicals such as cadmium and lead. I also had not heard that solar panels could produce about 300 times more waste than nuclear reactors providing the same amount of energy.

After many hours of studying, I learned that nuclear energy has become much safer and reliable than before. Next generation nuclear power plants will be able to shut down automatically and will not require power to cool down when a natural disaster such as an earthquake or tsunami occurs.

Then why is it that nuclear energy is not so popular while solar and wind energies get a lot of media attention? The answer may be found in people’s minds and perception. A 2013 study explains that people’s preconceived notions can influence their stance on the nuclear debate, which means people who have seen footage and pictures of nuclear explosions are more likely to associate the word “nuclear” with danger and death than those who have not. This suggests that people may be able to overcome their preferences and biases by having a better understanding of energy issues.

And, of course, there are more practical and site-specific issues with building nuclear power plants. The World Nuclear Association reports that it is complicated and expensive to build nuclear plants owing to location, reactor size, construction time, and interest rates. In South Carolina, a nuclear project was canceled last year due to budgeting issues leaving two new nuclear reactors incomplete and abandoned.

At this point, it is crucial that there must be an objective scientific analysis to compare the advantages and disadvantages of all available energy sources as we move forward to phasing out fossil fuels and the carbon emissions that come with them. Multiple sectors will need to work on developing and assessing the potential and risk of nuclear energy as it may be one of the best alternatives to fossil fuels.

There must be a public demand of interest in nuclear energy with educational campaigns to raise awareness of climate change and energy issues. Although there has been significant progress in nuclear science over many decades, many people are not aware of the fact that it’s carbon-free and produces an almost inexhaustible amount of energy with relatively much less waste than other forms of energy.

As many countries try to meet their goals set through the Paris Agreement, I hope they will not avoid nuclear power just because it feels dangerous but will evaluate its potentials and suitability in various conditions for their energy needs.

I hope those daunting d-words in people’s minds like “danger” and “destruction” will be replaced by “discoveries” and “developments.”

Submit Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *