Nuclear energy has a rather torn audience. Some individuals believe it to be the only way to solve climate change. Others think nuclear power is a disaster waiting to happen. So, is this alternative energy really unsafe, or is it humanity's best hope at lowering emissions?
With the growing concern for climate change, many individuals are looking to remedy the current state of the environment. Alternative energy is touted to be the best option to lower atmospheric emissions and reduce the overall negative outcomes of global warming.
Many different forms of alternative energy have made themselves prominent in recent years, such as solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, and even nuclear power. It seems many people have a strong opinion either way as to what they believe the best route is for climate change remediation. There is a large following behind nuclear energy as a whole, and an equally large following that believes nuclear to be a national threat and inevitable disaster.
Nuclear energy is produced by mining uranium. Uranium occurs naturally throughout the earth and is predominantly found in the form of U-238 and lesser so in the form U-235. After being mined, U-238 is enriched to form the U-235 concentrations that are better suited for nuclear energy. Following this, a process known as fission takes place. Fission is what happens when atoms are split up to generate energy. These split atoms are used to heat water, produce steam, and turn the turbine, thus generating energy. The turbine is typically connected to either the grid or a generator where the energy is stored for future use.
Why the Bad Reputation?
A lot of the negativity surrounding nuclear energy lies in the name itself. Most commonly associated with the nuclear bomb or even Chernobyl, many individuals hear the name and automatically write off the energy source without giving it much thought.
The reality is that nuclear power is far safer than it is given credit for - some scientists even believe it is one of the safest options for alternative energy. This is because of all the precautionary measures that are accounted for at the nuclear plants. We can look to other countries that have implemented nuclear at larger scales to better understand how safe the energy source truly is.
France, for example, has 58 nuclear power reactors that provide the country with nearly 72% of its overall electricity supply as of 2018. France has strict regulations and legislation in place regarding nuclear energy that allows for the increased safety of the alternative energy source. The country also has a national policy that requires the recycling of spent fuel, meaning they can require 17% less natural uranium, saving on even more emissions and waste.
If this isn’t convincing enough that nuclear energy can be implemented at a safe scale, the U.S. Department of Energy states that nuclear energy can even help protect national security. This is due to the U.S. having the potential to lead the world in nuclear energy and therefore set precedence for safety and heavy regulations on an international scale.
Nuclear energy can also benefit the country by generating new job opportunities, boosting international development, lowering atmospheric emissions, and even power electric vehicles. Perhaps one of the most notable benefits is that nuclear power can generate energy 24/7, whereas solar, for instance, can only produce energy when the sun is out.
Implementation in the United States
The United States started utilizing nuclear energy as early as 1958, when the first commercial nuclear power plant began operating. Since then, the US has implemented this energy at a larger scale and currently has 56 nuclear power plants providing roughly 20% of the United States’ energy needs. However, even with nearly a quarter of the US being powered from nuclear, some individuals still aren’t convinced it has as low an environmental footprint as claimed.
The reality is that with nuclear power, as with nearly anything in the realm of environmentalism, there are many nuances that must be taken into consideration before writing off this alternative energy or claiming it as the best option to solve climate change.
According to the various life-cycle analysis done on this alternative energy, the largest environmental impact comes from mining uranium. Depending on where and how it is mined, its overall carbon footprint can vary. In the case such as with France, the ability to recycle some of the spent fuel can lead to an even lower footprint and make the alternative energy that much more sustainable. Even if the spent fuel isn’t recycled, nuclear energy is still considered to have very low emissions, certainly more so than fossil fuels, and even lower than solar and wind energy.
Perhaps one of the largest barriers preventing the full-scale implementation of nuclear energy is the lack of public awareness and knowledge on the subject. With many individuals still having an underlying hesitation to embrace nuclear power, the push for this alternative energy has stagnated and, therefore, is unable to reach its full potential. Furthermore, the best way to help curb climate change would be to diversify energy sources.
Nuclear has many of the answers that society is looking for, and used in conjunction with other alternative energy sources when appropriate can greatly alter the country’s path and lower the negative outcomes of climate change for good.