Since the dawn of the atomic era – and the devastating potential of atomic bombs in the wrong hands – nuclear energy has had a reputation for being the boogeyman of humanity’s energy options. Contributing to the fear of nuclear power, several nuclear power plants were involved in disastrous events including Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and most recently, Fukushima. The public has a long memory of these events, and they were indeed horrific and terrifying. However, is the risk of nuclear energy as highas the public thinks it is?  What if we compare it to other traditional forms of energy?

Splitting the Atom

Many people are skeptical of nuclear energy because they are uninformed about the science that makes it possible. In layman’s terms, nuclear energy involves a process that creates electricity with the energy bound within an atom’s nucleus. For this electricity to be created, the energy of atoms must be released through fusion or fission. During fusion, multiple atoms are combined (fused together). When this happens, energy is released and eventually converted to electricity using certain technologies. Fission is the process of splitting an atom to release nuclear energy.  Today, power plants use fission.  The process to generate electricity from nuclear fusion (a process that happens naturally in the sun when hydrogen is converted to helium) is likely decades away.

The Risks of Nuclear Energy

Most people have learned about the risks associated with nuclear energy. The two most obvious risks are radioactive decay and instability. These risks can be mitigated with the application of strict procedures, training, and technology. In comparison, the health risks of burning coal or other fossil-fueled power plants is staggering – though much less dramatic on a day-to-day basis.  that is, there is no single catastrophic event to point the finger at.  Here’s the data from the United States, alone:

U.S.-Health-Burden-Caused-by-Particulate-Pollution-From-Fossil-Fuled-Power-Plants.
Source: Scientific American

 

History of Nuclear Energy Safety

The early years of atomic energy are marked by destruction and fallout. This is because the world was introduced to nuclear energy by the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in Japan at the end of World War II. In the four decades that followed these events, the people of the world developed a collective fear of nuclear energy which was further fueled by the Cold War and the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union which resulted in the massive stockpile of nuclear weapons.

Accidents such as the reactor meltdowns at Chernobyl in 1986 and Three Mile Island in 1979 solidified the public’s fear of nuclear power plants as an option to the energy crisis. Finally, the disaster involving the Fukushima reactor in 2011 extended people’s fear of nuclear energy into the 21st century.

Devastating incidents like the ones mentioned above are exceedingly rare.  Nuclear energy, when implemented under a well-regulated system is very safe.  It’s not unlike people’s irrational fear of flying, where the odds of a plane crash are one for every 1.2 million flights, and odds of dying one in 11 million. Your chances of dying in a car or traffic accident are one in 5,000.

Statistically speaking, flying is far safer than driving. However, it may feel more dangerous because risk perception is based on more than facts.  Driving affords more personal control, giving the illusion that it is safer. In addition, plane crashes are catastrophic, killing more people at once, which grabs more media attention and makes people more sensitive to them. Car crashes happen every day and spread the loss over time, making their combined effects less noticeable.

A ban on nuclear energy?

Nuclear energy currently has many opponents. One of the most outspoken critics of nuclear energy is Vermont’s Senator, Bernie Sanders. Sanders believes that nuclear energy is dangerous for the environment. As a supporter of clean solar and wind energies, Sanders must recognize the fact that nuclear energy has an important role to play in replacing fossil fuels. Nuclear energy can replace fossil fuels to ensure that global economic growth remains stable until newer technologies become efficient (and affordable) enough to be a primary source of energy on a global scale.

The decision to eliminate nuclear energy should not be taken lightly or the Law of Unintended Consequences could rear its ugly head.  According to Slate, a recent modeling report by Third Way, a centrist think tank, showed that shuttered American nuclear plants would likely be replaced by natural gasincreasing net emissions.

A World Without Fossil Fuels?

Many writers have fantasized about an Earth that thrives on the clean energy of the sun. This solarpunk fantasy needs to become a reality for humanity to continue to exist. Thankfully, we have seen the increased use of renewable and sustainable technologies in recent years. According to Ohio Gas, about 13 percent of the United State’s electricity was generated from renewables as of 2014 – a good start, to be sure, but we should be looking to use multiple other sources of clean energy, including nuclear.

Nuclear energy is a stable and clean alternative to fossil fuels. While it may not be the final energy solution for humanity, it can help to curb climate change until new innovations can be implemented on a global scale.  The bottom line? If it’s implemented correctly

 

  • Mark_42

    I’ve heard many good things about Thorium reactors, one of which is that the main byproduct is 238Pu, a high energy isotope of Plutonium that while useless for nuclear weapons, is in extremely low supply and in high demand by NASA to power RTGs on its long range, long life missions.