Domestic Affairs

The Case For Nuclear Energy

Energy infrastructure is central to the problems of and solutions to climate change. Our current primary sources of energy—coal, natural gas, and oil—are largely to blame for high carbon emissions. This results in the amplification of the greenhouse effect, which is the phenomenon where carbon and other greenhouse gasses trap heat from the sun in our atmosphere rather than allowing the heat to radiate out into space. The problem, then, lies in finding alternative sources of energy for a world that now depends so vitally upon it. 

The discussion of changing energy rightfully orients itself around replacing our current energy sources with a combination of green energy sources, such as wind and solar energy. Yet, it is often pointed out that these methods of energy generation are simply not powerful enough to do the job on their own. Nuclear energy, however, is often seen as the most viable large-scale energy replacement. The question then becomes, what is the status of nuclear energy, and why has it seemingly been shunned from widespread adoption? 

Nuclear energy provides a clean solution to the negative amplification of the greenhouse effect. This is due to the fact that it produces no emissions during operation. France, whose energy supply is 70% nuclear power, produces one-sixth the average emissions of other European countries. The French developed the majority of their nuclear infrastructure in only 15 years, which is significant because it signals that effective nuclear energy can be built within a single generation. 

But how does nuclear energy actually work? Nuclear energy utilizes nuclear fission, a process that generates energy when uranium atoms are split apart. The heat created from fission is then used to create steam, which powers turbines without producing carbon emissions in the process. In 2020, the United States avoided over 471 million metric tons of carbon emissions by having 8% of its energy come from nuclear fission. This is equivalent to getting 100 million cars off the road! This tells us that each added percentage of nuclear energy to our power grid would make America’s carbon footprint significantly smaller. Additionally, apart from a much smaller climate impact, nuclear energy also helps reduce local air pollution and its effects, such as smog and acid rain, which cause illnesses such as lung cancer. 

One problem with the green energy sources of wind and solar is the fact that they require high quantities of land for low efficiency production. For solar to produce 1000 megawatts of energy — enough to power 460,000-900,000 homes — 360 times more land than nuclear energy is required. Nuclear is also the most efficient energy source by a vast margin. It has a capacity factor of 92%, meaning that power plants produce the maximum amount of power possible 92% of the time. Meanwhile, coal averages 40.2%, natural gas 56.6%, and wind 32%.

What about safety? It turns out that nuclear energy is responsible for far fewer deaths than all other energy sources except for solar. Due to air pollution and operation accidents, fossil fuels average much higher numbers of deaths than nuclear energy. Historic nuclear energy accidents such as the disasters of Fukushima, Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl must be taken in context. The average death rate from nuclear energy is far below that of fossil fuels, even when considering the accidents above. Across six decades and 18,000+ cumulative years of operation in 36 countries, these three incidents were the only major accidents. Not only is it one of the cleanest and efficient energy sources, but nuclear power is also statistically safer than the energy sources we already use.

It seems that the only things standing in the way of nuclear development are a lack of capital and willpower. It is true that it costs more to build nuclear power plants than coal and natural gas plants. However, once the plant is running, the levelized cost per megawatt-hour for nuclear power is $33, whereas coal costs $41 and natural gas costs $36. Therefore, nuclear power can be more competitive than fossil fuel energy with adequate investment. 

Following the energy crisis sparked by the war in Ukraine in 2022, nuclear has proven to be the direction in which many significant countries in the developed world want to head. The United Kingdom, France, and Japan have established plans to build new reactors and develop a new energy paradigm. In the United States, the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 provided over $6 billion in funding for the maintenance of a nuclear power plant in California, as well as $150 million for nuclear research at an Idaho facility. These major investments should be one of hopefully many federal investments to support a viable green energy source for the future. As voters, it will be essential to show support for nuclear energy by voting for those who will take its funding seriously. As it stands, the case for nuclear energy is more apparent than it has been in the past, but we must be cognizant of the need to support nuclear policy and infrastructure. Nuclear energy can be pivotal for sustainability. All we have to do is open the floodgates of funding. 

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