When nuclear energy is brought up there are many decades of preconceptions built up since their introduction in the late 1950’s some of these notions are true, some not so, often stemming from word of mouth myths spread among the population rather than from the mouths of nuclear physicists. Nuclear energy is a topic many people know about on a surface level but it’s uncommon for most to know the actual details of nuclear power, the reasons it hasn’t become popular, the developing technologies, the actual safety, the cost, and the amount of energy they produce. Despite how important nuclear is, making up 20% of the U.S power source with only 93 plants, it is not a common topic of discussion and when it is never in much depth. In this article many questions about nuclear energy will be answered from a range of aspects concerning the environmental issues it solves, how safe it really is, and the economics holding it back.
There are some environmental concerns about nuclear, many question the impact of nuclear waste on the environment as the waste if mishandled could affect local ecosystems. Well, among the nuclear power plants waste only about 0.2% of byproduct is considered high-level waste which is the radioactive waste we are concerned about. The rest of it is very slightly irradiated clothes and equipment that’s level of radiation is not felt by anything but things in very close proximity and even then it is minor, simply burying these low level types of waste in concrete is enough. For the high level waste realistically there are no issues as we have the technology to dispose of it, and of the 400,000 tonnes of spent fuel discharged worldwide since the advent of nuclear power plants, one-third has already been reprocessed. Currently the issue is negligible enough that semi temporary storage is more than enough to keep up with the high level waste and “…after 40 years, the radioactivity of used fuel has decreased to about one-thousandth of the level at the point when it was unloaded.” Though long term disposal is still necessary and is available technologically we are at the point to properly deal with high level nuclear waste. There are even proposals of next generation molten salt fast reactors that are capable of running on the already present nuclear waste from old 60’s light water reactors where reprocessing the waste to use as fuel is unnecessary. These reactors would be eliminating previous waste that has yet to be dealt with while also not producing any new waste products of its own, this would solve the nuclear radioactive waste issue for a longterm full switch to nuclear power as the worlds leading electric supply.
Nuclear science is constantly pushing the boundaries of what is possible for sustainability and a truly green emission-less supply of power. The most pressing reason for adopting nuclear power is the global warming and environmental deterioration we have observed in recent times, and nuclear presents an emission-less way out of this terrifying problem. Nuclear energy emits an ever so slightly less amount of greenhouse gasses than wind or solar do, overall for a truly green source of energy economy to be made a reality it cannot be down without nuclear.
A common query brought up about nuclear power is its safety, many bring up the Chernobyl and Fukushima incidents when discussing the safety of nuclear plants. While these events were terrible accidents with far reaching effects they weren’t very deadly at least in comparison to the general death toll of other energy sources which shed more light on the relative safety of nuclear as a whole. First the deaths from even the worst nuclear disasters are remarkably low considering these being the worst possible scenarios with Chernobyl there were 31 deaths and 140 individuals experiencing some level of radiation sickness or health complications, none of whom were members of the public. Taking into account the long term affects of a severe nuclear accident, a reasonable estimate from the calculations done by the World Health Organization in 2006 predicted about 9,000 excess cancer deaths due to the Chernobyl incident. With this evidence present it may seem like nuclear is not worth the risk, yet this being the worst case scenario it still barely holds a candle to the death toll of other traditional energysources. It is also important to note that we only see these kinds of worst case nuclear reactor scenarios with old light water and pressurized water reactors built in the 60’s. Meanwhile next generation molten salt reactors use newer methods of energy transfer between the heating rods and molten salts, in some cases molten metals, this makes the risk of steam explosions caused by a failure of adequate pressure as a possibility in old reactors physically impossible in new reactors.
More recent studies for overall long term trends of fatalities that can be attributed to nuclear energy number at about 0.07 deaths per 1 terawatt-hour which is the annual energy consumption of 27,000 people in the EU, this comes out to about 1 death every 14 years. This is in comparison to coal at about 24.6 deaths, oil at 18.4, and natural gas at 2.8 annual deaths per terawatt-hour. Other concerns for nuclear may be increased radiation levels but those that live near a nuclear power plant receive a statistically insignificant increase of 1 mrem, a mrem is a measurement of radiation. For comparison you receive about 1,000 mrem for a full body CT scan, 80 mrem from cosmic radiation for living at high altitudes, and 228 mrem from the average U.S home. Now the worst danger of traditional energy is air pollution, an estimated 4 million people die every year due to air pollution, this can be primarily attributed to traditional fossil fuels being burned within large cities. This tells us that by being idle and continuing to burn fossil fuels and not switching to alternative emission-less sources of energy we will continue to see 4 million people die annually from air pollution. Of the people who die from air pollution both natural and man made “…3.6 million were attributed to fossil fuels. This means fossil fuels were responsible for 64% of deaths from man-made air pollution.” While this logistically cannot be simply undone and will take a long time to make the switch it is a reminder of the costs we pay in continuing to use traditional energy.
After getting this far you may ask yourself why we haven’t already switched over to this supposed miracle energy, and well the answer is as predictable as you could probably guess, money. The cost of nuclear reactors construction are many times that of natural gas plants and while the investment pays off at a much higher rate, it takes much longer to see anything back on that investment. The construction cost of a nuclear power plant can range from around $5,500 to $8,100 per kilowatt meanwhile a natural gas plant costs about $920 per kilowatt. To make it more simple a 1,000 mega watt power plant for nuclear, if we average at about $6,000 per kilowatt, will come out to cost around $6,000,000,000 to construct while a natural gas plant will only cost around 920,000,000. From this comparison alone I’m sure you can see the problem with nuclear, it is simply a far riskier investment to make than something as relatively safe as natural gas. One could also make the connection that no politician would want to invest in nuclear as by the time it was constructed and later breaks even to begin making a profit they would no longer be in their position. The cost of power once the nuclear plant is constructed may also rise in order to contribute to paying off the construction costs. With all these factors combined nuclear is an incredibly unattractive option for politicians and the market as a whole, this sad reality is what is keeping these technologies in blueprints, simulations, and small scale tests. The field of nuclear technology is an incredibly expensive one that we may not see get the funding necessary to change the world anytime soon.
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