Earlier this year, the Trump administration released its budget proposal. Among the myriad of things I found myself in stark disagreement with, there was one thing I was actually happy to see: renewed funding for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste facility in Nevada. As the Las Vegas Review-Journal noted, “Trump included $120 million to restart licensing on the geologic site north of Las Vegas, as well as to establish an interim storage program to address the growing stockpile of nuclear waste produced by power plants in states across the nation.” This proposal was not without its critics. The vast majority of Nevada’s statewide leaders oppose the project on the grounds that it would turn Nevada into the nation’s “nuclear waste dump.” Additionally, many congressional Democrats are worried that it would harm Nevada’s precious water sources. While these are all genuine concerns, I think they’re a little misguided, seeing as two separate investigatory commissions deemed the site safe for waste storage up to 10,000 years,
After years of work and $15 billion spent, Yucca Mountain was set to become the premiere nuclear waste storage facility in the world when then-majority leader Harry Reid and the Obama administration stalled the project. Sadly it’s main obstacle was less environmental and more political. The public has an allergic reaction to nuclear energy; a 2016 Gallup poll showed that 54% of respondents did not support nuclear energy in the United States. It also concluded that majorities of both major parties don’t really want to touch the subject. This brings up the obvious question: Why do people hate nuclear energy so much, even though it’s one of the cleanest and safest energy technologies in the world? I think answering this question goes a long way toward rehabilitating nuclear energy in the public eye, and with the growing threats of climate change, the time to change that perception is now.
As Penn Jillette noted in an episode of “Bullshit,” some people don’t like nuclear power merely because of the word “nuclear.” The word has become associated with Cold War-era fears of global annihilation. Even President Ronald Reagan, the president responsible for one of the biggest nuclear weapons buildups in American history, chafed at the potential of nuclear after watching the apocalyptic TV-movie, “The Day After.” Furthermore, most American environmental groups don’t like nuclear power and have dedicated years to maligning it in the public eye. The Sierra Club declares that “Nuclear is no solution to Climate Change and every dollar spent on nuclear is one less dollar spent on truly safe, affordable and renewable energy sources.” Greenpeace is even more alarmist: “Greenpeace opposes nuclear power because it is dangerous, polluting, expensive and non-renewable. More nuclear power means more nuclear weapons proliferation, more nuclear-armed states, more potential “dirty bombs” and more targets for terrorists.”
Alarmist attitudes over nuclear power are unwarranted. First, it leaves a smaller carbon footprint than alternatives like solar energy do. As environmentalist and California gubernatorial candidate Michael Shellenberger noted in his TED talk, “according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, nuclear produces four times less carbon emissions than solar does. That’s why they recommended in their recent report the more intensive use of renewables, nuclear [,] and carbon capture and storage.” Solar energy’s carbon emissions are mostly created through the process of mining materials as well as the manufacturing process of solar panels and batteries. Second, contrary to Greenpeace’s claim, nuclear energy is incredibly safe. Steven Pinker highlights this in his newest book, Enlightenment Now:
The sixty years with nuclear power have seen thirty-one deaths in the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the result of extraordinary Soviet-era bungling, together with a few thousand early deaths from cancer above the 100,000 natural cancer deaths in the exposed population. The other two famous accidents, at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Fukushima in 2011, killed no one…. Compared with nuclear power, natural gas kills 38 times as many people per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated, biomass 63 times as many, petroleum 243 times as many, and coal 387 times as many—perhaps a million deaths a year.
Let’s unpack the worst accident, Chernobyl, a little more. The people who cleaned up Chernobyl, arguably the most exposed to radiation, saw only a 1% increase in mortality. For comparison, living with a smoker increases mortality by 1.7% and air pollution in a major city like New York by 2.8%. People justifiably worry about nuclear radiation, but the science shows us that fallout from nuclear facilities is not as harsh as assumed.
As anti-nuclear activists harp about its status as a non-renewable energy, they fail to acknowledge that wind, solar, and other supposed “renewables” rely just as much on non-renewable resources as nuclear energy does. Wind and solar energy’s reliance on precious metals and minerals for manufacturing solar panels and wind turbines have a high carbon footprint, not to mention the intense and often dangerous labor required to extract them. Additionally, there’s no consensus on how to recycle solar panels, which contain “heavy toxic metals like chromium, cadmium, and lead.” Shellenberger shares this uncomfortable truth about solar panels: “solar actually produces 200 to 300 times more toxic waste than nuclear.” And this is with a technology that only accounts for roughly 1% of global energy use. While renewables certainly represent a component to our energy future, they cannot fulfill our expanding energy needs entirely, especially in the developing world.
Besides fossils fuels and hydroelectric plants, nuclear power is the only reliable, plentiful, and scalable energy source that can meet our needs. Its concentrated energy is astounding; according to energy researcher Alex Epstein, “the concentration of energy in uranium is more than a million times that of oil and 2 million times that of coal—although given current technology, in practice it ‘only’ delivers thousands of times more energy per unit of input.” Despite technological setbacks, nuclear energy is amazingly dense, not to mention efficient. Additionally, elements like uranium and thorium are plentiful around the globe, and with improvements in technology, a little bit will go a long way. Nuclear energy is also scalable. Take the example of France, which generates 93% of its electricity from clean sources like hydro and nuclear. Not only does France use twice as much clean energy as Germany, one of the world’s biggest renewable countries, but its energy costs are half. As Germany invests more and more in renewables and moves away from nuclear, they have to resort to coal as an auxiliary power. In turn, this made its overall carbon footprint increase over the last few years.
In terms of environmental impact, it is true that nuclear plants do use a lot of water, but it is a lot less than you may think. According to the US Department of Energy, nuclear energy only uses 3.3% of water in the US, which is “much more water than some sources of renewable energy, such as wind and photovoltaic solar, but generally less water than other sources of renewable energy, such as geothermal and concentrating solar.” Thermoelectric energy plants use vastly larger amounts of water than nuclear, and the former’s can be recycled back into the local water supply. Furthermore, Generation III and IV nuclear plants, once online, would use dramatically less water, as a result of new technological efficiencies. In regards to water biomes, nuclear energy plant designs are improving. According to the Canadian Nuclear Association, “While it is true that water intake and cooling systems of shoreline power plants could affect aquatic life, water-intake systems are now normally located deep enough to minimize effects on fish, and shaped to avoid fish entrapment. Designs of water-discharge systems have been modified to help cool the water before it is returned to the lake, and the systems are located to reduce effects on aquatic life.” And, concerning uninhabitable land, wastewater created from fracking and coal plants also leaves uninhabitable areas, and due to the retrieval of energy from the ground, leaves a much larger acreage footprint. Nuclear energy, despite all the negative press it receives, is the most viable alternative energy, reducing our reliance on fossil fuels and combating global climate change.
If all of this isn’t enough to give you pause about the potential of nuclear power, then maybe you need to hear it from one of the environmental movement’s most influential leaders: Stewart Brand. Brand, a biologist and the author of the iconic eco-manual Whole Earth Catalog, has become one of nuclear energy’s biggest champions. As he said in an interview with NPR:
. . . the research led me into looking at what are the real threats of radiation – way less than we thought; what really happened at Chernobyl – way less than we thought; what are the efficiencies of nuclear – way better than I thought; what is the tradeoff against solar and wind, and one of things environmentalists are just learning now is that because solar and wind are so dilute, they make an enormous footprint on the land in order to collect them and then another large footprint with the long transmission lines.
He further noted that, “The safety record of the nuclear industry again, that turned up in my research – is impeccable.” Brand proposes that the United States invest heavily in nuclear power over the next few decades, and if our capacity could become 80% of total energy usage, the benefits to the climate could be extraordinary. Environmentalist James Hansen and even billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates have also acknowledged the potential of nuclear energy.
So, what continues to hold nuclear energy back? Money and politics. Nuclear plants in the US have been historically stalled by suffocating regulations, which makes the costs prohibitively expensive. One way to change this is by curtailing or eliminating unnecessary regulatory hoops for both public and private investments in nuclear energy. Doing this will allow the industry to bring the highly innovative III and IV generation plants online as well as update older plants to match these specifications. This will bring costs down tremendously as well as improve safety; III and IV generation plants can handle potential problems much better than older plants. They should become the standard. The United States has already put billions in subsidies for renewable energies; why can’t we invest money in an energy source that isn’t intermittent, non-scalable, and with a lower overall carbon footprint?
This is where the politics come in. The public (and politicians) love renewables because they look clean and nice, despite the fact that they take up an incredible amount of land (at a detriment to local ecosystems) and use heavy metals and elements that have to be arduously mined, are arguably as toxic as nuclear waste. As Environmental Progress’s Jemin Desai and Mark Nelson have noted, “solar panels create 300 times more toxic waste per unit of energy than do nuclear power plants.” These tradeoffs are never discussed when we talk about wind and solar; people just think about the breeze or sunshine that produces energy. By contrast, nuclear energy takes up a lot less land, is way more energy dense, and overall better for the environment. Additionally, wind and solar are only now becoming cost-effective because of decades of government cash. Imagine if we had put that money into nuclear energy.
It’s time for politicians and the public to honestly examine the tradeoffs of alternative energies and stop being so alarmist about nuclear energy. We either need to reinstate funding for Yucca Mountain, or if Nevada doesn’t want to play ball, move the nuclear waste facility to another state, where its economic benefits will be appreciated. Or the best option, now the industry standard, is to house the waste on-site in disaster-proof drums that are monitored daily for possible risks. Any of these options would make our country safer: having secured, state-of-the-art facilities for our nuclear waste would alleviate a lot of potential safety issues. We also need larger investments, both public and private, towards the improvement of older plants and the construction of new ones. It’s time that we stop letting cowardly public leaders and eco justice warriors dominate the discussion. Our world is not going to use less energy; in fact, as the developing world comes online, we will use a whole lot more. We have to take a pragmatic, science-based approach to our energy policy. One big step, if we’re serious about stemming the tide of climate change, is to embrace nuclear energy. Its time has come; we just have to make it happen.
We Need to Embrace Nuclear Energy