The Nuclear Necessity

By PSU EcoMerge Capstone - 9:30 PM

The energy needs of the world are increasing without any sign of slowing down. Yet, most of our energy is supplied through the use of fossil fuels. The great thing about fossil fuels is that they provide a plentiful and cheap source of energy for us to consume. The downside is that fuel such as oil and coal burn dirty, releasing undesirable byproducts into our environment. This is particularly noticeable in highly populated areas like L.A. which have a smog problem mainly caused by the burning of fossil fuels. The other problem is that there is a limited amount of fossil fuels available on the Earth, which means we will out of those resources eventually. These factors are creating a strong demand for an energy source that can replace traditional fossil fuels while being cheap, clean, and abundant.

These days, there seems to be a lot of focus on renewable energy sources such as solar and wind when it comes to the future of the world's energy needs. These energy sources are great and they have a place in our mix of energy sources, but they may not be the best solution. There is one source of energy that is often overlooked as an energy source of the future. It is right under our nose and it could be the answer to our high energy needs for quite some time. That energy source is nuclear energy.

Nuclear power is an energy source that fits the criteria of being clean, cheap, and abundant. There are currently 450 nuclear power plants in the world already, generating 11% of the world's energy. In the USA, as much as 20% of its total energy comes from 61 nuclear power plants. Compare this to 1,436 coal plants providing about 30% of the total energy for the United States. This shows that nuclear power is already widely used and has proven to be a viable option for the production of energy. This sparks the question: why have we not increased our investment in nuclear energy?

Of course, nuclear energy is not perfect. The number one reason there seems to be a lack of support for nuclear power could be summed up in one word: fear. After the notorious events of Chernobyl and Fukushima, government entities and citizens alike are thinking twice before supporting nuclear energy options for the future. This was certainly the case for Fukushima when an earthquake triggered the disaster that displaced thousands of people and caused environmental contamination. This disaster sparks protests against the use of nuclear energy while the Japanese government simultaneously adopted a policy that prevented its future investment. Now they burn more coal instead.

But it is important to have proper perspective when thinking about nuclear energy. The nuclear plant used in Fukushima was very old and outdated. If they had upgraded or replaced the plant with new designs and new technology, it is unlikely the disaster would have happened in the first place since modern nuclear power plants are much safer. Other energy sources such as coal and hydro are not accident-free either. In fact, the highest death toll and financial cost from the top power plant disaster comes from hydro power at 171,000 people killed and $8,700,000,000 in damage. Compared to Chernobyl at 4,056 deaths and $6,700,000,000 in damage. Yet hydro power seems to be much more acceptable to the masses than nuclear energy. Not to mention all the accidents associated with coal power which remains one of the leading sources of energy in the world.

And when it comes to environmental contamination, coal plants and other fossil-fuel-based energies are constantly spewing pollution and carbon emissions into the environment under normal operation. In fact, fly ash from coal plants can carry "into the surrounding environment 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy." The only serious problem with nuclear energy is the waste that is left over from nuclear fuel. And since nuclear power is dependent on non-renewable fuel, we will eventually run out of that natural resource. This is why investments in nuclear advancements are important because they can solve these problems. Leslie Dewan is part of one of the 40+ startup companies in the U.S. focused on developing advanced nuclear energy solutions. As she explained, "If you're concerned about climate change, you need to be open to nuclear power."

TerraPower is a startup company backed by Bill Gates that may have a solution for nuclear waste. They are working on a new nuclear reactor that can use depleted uranium(nuclear waste) as fuel. A nuclear fuel enrichment plant in Paducah, Kentucky has the biggest stockpile of nuclear waste in the United States. According to Nathan Myhrvold - Bill gates' former Chief Technology Officer - Paducah alone has enough stored nuclear waste to power the United States for the next 750 years. This means that our current use of enriched uranium would no longer be a problem since the resulting waste could be used as fuel for the new reactors. It will still take a number of years before this solution becomes viable, but its potential for a replacement for fossil fuels should not be overlooked. This is just one of many developing technologies that could make nuclear power the energy source of the future.

The following is an excellent documentary by PBS entitled "The Nuclear Option" which much of this post was based on. It is certainly worth watching:


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