Top illustration by Tim Forkes
Utter the word “nuclear” in a discussion about the environmental impact of alternative power sources, and you’re likely to garner some attention. While people are happy to indulge solar power and other less controversial sources, nuclear energy has a less neutral effect—to put it mildly.
The assumptions regarding nuclear energy often range from “dirty” to “dangerous,” with a seemingly scattered few endorsing its usage. But few can define it well.
Nuclear Energy is essentially a zero-emission energy source generating generates power via fission. This produces energy through the process of splitting uranium atoms, and the heat released by this fission creates steam to spin electricity-producing turbines.
In 2019, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) reports that nuclear energy reduced carbon dioxide emissions by at least 476 million metric tons. Energy.gov compares this type of impact to “removing 100 million cars from the road and more than all other clean energy sources combined.”
Additionally, NEI confirmed the efficiency of such practices, stating that wind farms require more than 250 times as much land in order to match nuclear energy plants, and solar plants require 75 times more land.
When stored properly, nuclear energy is also a space saver due to its density. Six decades worth of nuclear energy produced in the U.S. would fill fewer than 10 yards of a football field. And it can be reprocessed.
Despite all these pluses, the public as a whole is largely — and understandably — apprehensive surrounding using or storing nuclear energy.
Instances like the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 contribute greatly to this fear, cloaking the topic in various myths. Part of the reason Chernobyl became engraved as a solid example of nuclear energy’s danger was the lack of knowledge around what truly occurred and why. The Chernobyl plant’s flawed reactor—combined with operator error—resulted in the deaths of two plant employees, as well as injuries and illnesses of more than 6,500 individuals living nearby.
Approximately 350,000 people evacuated the area to avoid radiation side effects. But instances like Chernobyl or the tragedy of Fukushima Daiichi have provided key insights into the importance of well-maintained reactors, fastidious scientific oversight and government oversight where security and safety matters are concerned.
In actuality, nuclear energy releases less radiation than other forms of energy. Pulitzer Prize winning author Richard Rhodes expands on this:
This statement will seem paradoxical to many readers, since it’s not commonly known that non-nuclear energy sources release any radiation into the environment. They do. The worst offender is coal, a mineral of the earth’s crust that contains a substantial volume of the radioactive elements uranium and thorium. Burning coal gasifies its organic materials, concentrating its mineral components into the remaining waste, called fly ash. So much coal is burned in the world and so much fly ash produced that coal is actually the major source of radioactive releases into the environment.
A Harvard source also submits that people are asking the wrong questions about nuclear energy. Rather than forming every question to the matter of whether nuclear energy is deadly, they say, people should ask if it is more dangerous than the alternative energy sources. The answer is no, it’s not.
Unsurprisingly, the World Nuclear Association (WNA) covers their bases in assuring the public that despite the dangers of radiation, scientists and plant workers are always working to avoid accidents, making nuclear energy far less harmful, destructive and ecologically harmful than coal-based energy. But claims like these feel hollow when there’s money to be made from such promises. Longitudinal data may be the only convincing evidence.
To date, the WNA confirms over six decades of information, all of which indicates fewer risks associated with nuclear energy production and storage. They also provide statistics on the total volume of waste produced by nuclear energy, breaking it down into high, intermediate and low-level waste. Low level waste contains the least radioactivity and makes up a whopping 90 percent of nuclear waste. The remaining percentage is either intermediate (some radioactivity) or high-level (upwards of 95 percent radioactive) nuclear waste.
Furthermore, nations like France have found safer and more practical ways to process, recycle or store nuclear waste. In 2006, France put new legal regulations in place to better manage the processing and storage of nuclear waste. Coming in second to Germany with energy consumption, France is heavily reliant on nuclear power generation.
Reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the U.S. Energy Information Administration report France generates “63.2 gigawatts (GW) of operable nuclear capacity, the second highest such capacity in the world after the United States. Nuclear generation in 2015 was 417 terawatthours, or about 76% of the country’s total net generation.”
According to the Electricite de France (EDF), 90 percent of this waste is sealed and contained in metal or concrete storage units, and remaining waste is reconditioned for more secure storage at AREVA’s La Hague plant, placed in argillaceous rock after being encased in stainless steel.
Recycling also comes into play. Stored nuclear waste, with nearly 96 percent being recovered, is recycled. According to the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management, their national fuel recycling policy has decreased the need for natural uranium for plant operation by almost a quarter. They are developing further methods, but at this time no safety problems have been reported, and any concerns are handled by the French Safety Authority (ASN) and addressed via ongoing assessments, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Looking at future projections, IAEA estimated an eight percent decline in generating capacity by 2030 with a possibility of increasing by 80 percent by 2050 in the best-case scenario. This is all the more astonishing when you consider that approximately 10 percent of the world’s electricity was generated via nuclear power fewer than five years ago.
IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Energy, Mikhail Chudakov, shared his own predictions. “Global electricity demand is expected to rise sharply in coming years as countries need more power for development. Without a significant increase in the deployment of nuclear power, it will be difficult for the world to secure sufficient energy to achieve sustainable development and to mitigate climate change.”
While long-term projections based on current data are speculative by nature, the topic remains one of notable interest and perhaps endless debate. But with many nations applying this energy without any safety qualms, the future of nuclear energy holds enormous potential.
Megan Wallin is a young writer with a background in the social sciences and an interest in seeking the extraordinary in the mundane. A Seattle native, she finds complaining about the constant drizzle and overabundance of Starbucks coffee therapeutic. With varied work experiences as a residential counselor, preprimary educator, musician, writing tutor and college newspaper reporter/editor, Megan is thrilled to offer a unique perspective through writing, research and open dialogue.