In last week’s presidential debate, there was much discussion regarding energy policy. This discussion focused on issues such as climate change, investment in renewable energy resources and the role of fossil fuels going forward. As can be expected in a US presidential debate, this discussion was shallow, yielding only a few opportunities for the candidates to take pot shots at each other. The debate also touched on nuclear issues; specifically, proliferation and the Iran nuclear deal. However, neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton even breathed a mention of the most important nuclear issue: nuclear energy.
We are living in an age characterized by rising levels of greenhouse gases, shrinking reserves of fossil fuels, limited technological capabilities in regards to renewable energy resources and an expanding global population with growing energy demands. Given the challenges of such an era, it seems our only salvation will be found in the power of the atom. Nuclear power offers an alternative energy source that is not only cheap, bountiful, but also relatively safe and clean.
While there are significant upfront costs associated with the construction of a nuclear power plant (estimated 2/3 of total costs), these expenses are more than recovered by savings in other areas. The fuel costs associated with operating a nuclear power plant are about 1/3 those of a coal-fired plant and between 1/4 and a 1/5 of those of a gas plant. Furthermore, these costs are continuously declining and new reactor technologies (i.e. fast reactors, breeders, and new fuels) have enabled us to extract up to 100 times the energy from the same amount of fuel. This translates into even greater savings on fuel and an equivalent reduction in waste production, and the expenses associated with it. Additionally, the price of constructing a nuclear plant is also on the decline as new technologies and methodologies have become available.
At our current pace of use, global uranium reserves are expected to hold out for only 90 years. However, this number is expected to increase with technological advances. In fact, using only the technology available to us today, it is possible to generate power from our reserves for thousands of years to come. Incredible, considering the fact that there are only an estimated 150 years’ worth of coal and approximately 55 years’ worth of oil and natural gas left in the world. This is a terrifying prospect in a world built on fossil fuel. The truth is, nonrenewable reserves will run out long before renewable technologies have developed enough to replace them. In order to survive, we must recognize that nuclear energy is our only hope for bridging the gap.
Nuclear power is clean in the sense that it generates a negligible amount of greenhouse gases as compared to other forms of electricity generation. To put this in perspective, a nuclear power plant produces approximately 1/30 of the greenhouse emissions produced by coal generation and about 1/3 of the emissions generated by solar energy production.
In spite of these actualities, public opinion polls show that there are a majority of Americans who oppose nuclear energy. There are two criticisms commonly levied against the concept and both are largely unfounded. The first is there is no safe way to store or dispose of radioactive waste materials generated by nuclear energy production. The fact is we have been storing nuclear waste for more than a half a century with relative success and safety. Furthermore, governments around the world have invested billions in waste storage facilities, such as Yucca Mountain, Nevada or Onkalo, Finland. These facilities are effective and enable us to safely store radioactive waste for thousands of years.
The second charge leveled against nuclear energy relates to the potential health risks posed by radiation. However, according to the US department of energy: “Since 1957, utilities in the U.S. have operated commercial nuclear power plants. During this time, no one in the U.S. has died or been injured as a result of operations at a commercial nuclear power plant.” Furthermore, the EPA puts the odds of a person developing cancer as a result of exposure to radiation produced by the generation of electricity at “roughly one in 100.”
Given the realities of the times in which we live and the incredible potential of nuclear energy, it is obvious that we cannot afford to not invest in nuclear energy. Simply put an investment in nuclear power is an investment in our own future and those of our children and grandchildren.
Michael O'Malley is a senior studying political science at Ohio University. How do you feel about nuclear energy? Email your thoughts to Michael at firstname.lastname@example.org.