With climate change fueled by the release of harmful greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide and methane, people are understandably concerned about the future of the planet. Nuclear power is not as widely discussed as solar and wind energy, yet it also could help us reduce emissions.
Here, we’ll discuss how nuclear power can benefit the environment and examine some of the challenges associated with its use.
Benefits of Nuclear Power
The biggest benefit of choosing nuclear power over fossil fuels is that nuclear energy does not release greenhouse gases into the environment. In fact, it is one of the most significant sources of carbon-free energy—60 percent of the US’ carbon-free electricity is generated by nuclear power plants. In addition, nuclear energy is not adversely affected by the price fluctuations of oil and gas.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), there is likely to be a significant increase in carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, and the projected increase is directly related to the ever-increasing demand for energy worldwide. Carbon emissions are one of the leading contributors to global warming, and since most carbon emissions stem from power plants, it makes sense to focus on nuclear plants if we want to reduce them.
One reason nuclear power isn’t more prevalent has to do with politics. Legislators have traditionally been slow to embrace nuclear power as a true alternative to coal and natural gas power plants, which together provide up to two-thirds of the country’s energy. Combatting climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions simply hasn’t been seen as a top priority for the energy industry in the US.
In addition, nuclear power isn’t incentivized in the same way other energy sectors are, so there are no immediate benefits to increasing the number of nuclear plants. Despite the lack of attention placed on nuclear power, several US states are working to include nuclear plants in their long-term energy solutions. For example, in the Southeast US, new nuclear reactors are being built, which will provide enough carbon-free electricity to power more than 3 million residences. In New York, a clean energy standard has been put in place that focuses on keeping nuclear reactors up and running—including one reactor that was previously scheduled to be shut down.
In the US, there are nearly 100 nuclear reactors throughout the country, providing 20% of our power. Despite the energy efficiency of nuclear reactors, several of these reactors are aging and therefore due to be shut down—in the next decade, eight nuclear power plants in the US could close. According to the US Energy Information Administration, if these shutdowns occur, carbon emissions from the electricity sector are expected to rise by almost 3 percent.
Disadvantages of Nuclear Power
Nuclear power may be a viable alternative to coal and natural gas power plants, yet there are disadvantages to consider as well.
One cause for concern is the other resources that nuclear power plants require. In the nuclear fission reaction, a great deal of water is consumed in order to generate electricity. Research has shown that in 2008, nuclear plants used eight times more freshwater when compared to natural gas plants and approximately 11 percent more than the average coal power plant.
Of course, waste is the biggest concern with nuclear energy. Although reactors can generate large amounts of energy with a small amount of fuel, the waste produced in the process is radioactive and highly hazardous—and will remain so. Different nuclear isotopes have different half-lives, or the amount of time it takes for the isotope to lose half its radioactivity. Some completely decay in hours, but others take years. The half-life of plutonium-239 is 24,000 years, for example. This means that radioactive waste must be stored somewhere safe, where it will not pose a threat to human health—now or in the distant future.
Unfortunately, global warming is threatening some nuclear waste disposal sites that were previously thought to be permanently secure. A US site in northern Greenland that contains radioactive coolant and other waste is slowly thawing, and the hazardous materials may leak out by the end of this century.
Furthermore, politicians and the public are concerned about the risk of accidents, like the notorious partial meltdown of the nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island Generating Station in 1979. Cleanup of the accident took over a decade and cost $1 billion. Though most studies have concluded that the accident caused only minimal physical health effects, the public opinion of nuclear energy turned sour.
Aside from the obvious challenges of nuclear power, there are still compelling reasons to expand its use. Slowing climate change should be high on the priority list for everyone, and nuclear energy should be considered an effective way to help accomplish this.