Nuclear energy, our destiny
Nuclear energy has been unreasonably assigned a litany of derogatory connotations despite the fact that the hope of a future with sustainable energy rests on its development. Professor Richard Muller of the University of California-Berkley wrote about a Frontline documentary from 1997 that interviewed ordinary people on the streets about words they associate with “nuclear reactions.” The most common answers—“disaster, trouble, disgusting, dangerous, and radiation”—highlight our long-standing disdain for nuclear energy. America’s perception of what nuclear energy is and what it can be needs to be reevaluated because current beliefs inhibit our progression to sustainable energy.
Disasters like those at Fukushima and Chernobyl have instilled a social stigma against nuclear energy and created the perception that the risk of nuclear energy far outweighs that of any other energy source. However, Dr. Herbert Inhaber, adviser to the Atomic Energy Control Board in Canada, asserts that, to measure the risk of energy production, it is not enough only to compare the total amount of life lost or damage caused. Instead, Inhaber points out that risk can only be compared between different sources when it is measured as “risk per unit of energy” and that the “total energy cycle” must be evaluated. By this method of risk assessment, nuclear energy was the second-least-risky source of energy per kilowatt of power generated; only natural gas was less risky. Additionally, scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute have found that nuclear energy has saved lives by replacing fossil fuel power plants. Dr. Pushker Kharecha, author of the published paper, calculates that 1.8 million pollution-related deaths have already been prevented by nuclear energy replacing fossil fuels and that the change has stopped 64 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions. If nuclear energy were to replace fossil fuels on a large scale, Kharecha projects that 7 million lives would be saved in the next 40 years and greenhouse gas emissions will be reduced by 240 gigatons. While the overhaul of the energy industry to achieve this level of success would require both large amounts of time and capital, the potential for nuclear energy to reduce the dangers posed by climate change is undeniable.
Dr. James Hansen, the pivotal researcher who has been calling attention to the hazards of climate change for decades, champions the advancement and utilization of nuclear technology as a means of mitigating the effects climate change. Hansen, along with three other preeminent climate scientists, asserts that “in the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power.”
Why nuclear energy and not solar or wind power? The reasons are simple: solar arrays and wind farms cannot handle the growing energy demand, and they are too expensive for the underwhelming amount of power they can provide. On the other hand, nuclear reactors, while expensive, generate more than enough energy to compensate for their cost. Moreover, the greenhouse emissions generated from the construction of a reactor are the same as a wind turbine and less than that from photovoltaic cells.
The price of a reactor will likely decrease drastically in the future, according to a recent article in Scientific American, as smaller modular reactors are designed that consume fuels other than uranium, such as thorium. Thorium naturally occurs in the Earth’s crust, is four times more prevalent than uranium and can be used 200 times more efficiently than the uranium. A liquid fluoride thorium reactor is a new design that doesn’t require water for cooling the core, high pressure or solid fuel—all of which contribute to a meltdown. Unlike at Fukushima, thorium generators are not required to pump radioactive material out of the reactor in case of a meltdown. If a loss of power occurs, a thorium reactor shuts itself off automatically and sends its fuel into a containment chamber. It also produces far less waste than current reactor models. Hansen and his colleagues believe that “modern nuclear technology can reduce proliferation risks and solve the waste disposal problem by burning current waste and using fuel more efficiently.”
Nuclear energy should not be written off just because we have been conditioned to think that it is dangerous. It is our duty as earth dwellers to investigate all avenues of energy research so that we may find technologies that can provide a sustainable future for us and our planet.