A Case for Nuclear Energy

 /  Sept. 21, 2016, 9:15 p.m.


Environmentally conscious Americans concerned about climate change and eager to reduce America’s greenhouse gas emissions face a problem. In 2013, fossil fuels comprised 81 percent of the world’s energy supply. Despite massive increases in solar and wind energy, they are projected to comprise an almost identical 78 percent of the world’s energy mix in 2040, increasing in real terms by about 40 percent. Clearly, environmentalists’ current strategies have failed, and will likely continue to fail, to address the accelerating crisis of global warming. For decades, environmental activists and progressive politicians have championed solar and wind power, to the exclusion of other clean energy options, as panaceas for hindering climate change. Unfortunately, solar and wind are expensive and unreliable. As is evident from the above projections, solar and wind power have a limited capacity to dramatically alter America’s or the world’s greenhouse gas emissions in the near term. With current strategies unlikely to affect America’s reliance on fossil fuels, environmentally conscious citizens and their representatives could best serve the environment by broadening their clean energy policy horizons and embracing nuclear power as an alternative that is cheaper and more reliable than solar and wind power.

The Challenge of Solar and Wind Energy

Solar and wind power have long been hailed as the best solution for transitioning from fossil fuels towards a clean energy future. Renewable energy, and especially solar, dominates Hillary Clinton’s plan to tackle climate change; solar and wind are most prominent in the Sierra Club’s campaign for 100 percent renewable energy; and they are presented by the White House as foremost among the ways it has “expanded the clean energy economy.” However, while solar and wind power appear at first glance to be ideal solutions to climate change, they face a number of challenges. They are unreliable, expensive, and, due to their marginal status in America’s energy mix, unlikely to wean America off of fossil fuels in the short term.

First, because solar and wind power depend upon the unpredictable, uncontrollable, and rapidly changing factors of sunshine and wind patterns, they are the least reliable sources of energy. While other energy sources can be stored for long periods of time—in coal depots, oil and gas tanks, or underground nuclear storage—solar and wind power cannot be practically or efficiently stored to ensure a reliable and consistent energy supply. If the United States were to transition to a 100 percent renewable energy mix, it would face a serious risk for shortages and blackouts due to the weather’s unreliability. To actually complete this transition while simultaneously ensuring continued power—even when the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing in a specific part of the country—solar and wind power would have to generate approximately three times the amount of energy actually needed and would have to have 150 times the current level of energy storage. Therefore, solar and wind power remain pipe dreams due to their unreliability.             

Second, solar and wind power are prohibitively expensive. According to a recent Brookings Institution report, solar and wind power require 18.74 cents and 5.64 cents of capital investment per kilowatt hour (kWh) of power, respectively. Given the trillions of kWh of electricity used each year in the United States, transitioning to solar and wind power from coal and natural gas represents a tremendous expense for American consumers and businesses. Even factoring in the economic cost of the negative externalities caused by coal and natural gas carbon emissions, solar and wind cost 13.63 cents and 0.87 cents per kWh in capital investment. Factoring in the aforementioned necessity of producing excess solar and wind power to ensure reliability, solar and wind costs skyrocket even higher. Thus, unless Americans are willing to incur hundreds of billions of dollars in increased energy bills, solar and wind power will not replace fossil fuels due to the financial impact.

Third, and perhaps most significant, solar and wind power are currently relatively insignificant components of total US and world energy production and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future. In 2012, non-hydroelectric power renewables only accounted for 5 percent of worldwide electricity generation. (Hydroelectric power generation causes vast harm to the environment, and thus is not considered viable for the clean energy future, so its percentage will not increase substantially.) Despite a massive expansion in solar wind power, non-hydropower renewable energy is only projected to constitute 14 percent of the world’s electricity generation by 2040, while fossil fuel sources will still contribute 78 percent, compared with 81 percent in 2012. Similar to the world at large, in the United States, wind power constitutes 4.7 percent of electricity generation, while the much-touted solar power contributes merely 0.6 percent. Meanwhile, coal and natural gas contribute 33 percent each. Even under the Energy Information Association’s (EIA) most optimistic projection, solar and wind power will only generate at most 13 percent of US electricity by 2040, which does not even include energy usage unrelated to electricity, such as gasoline burned in vehicular transportation. Because they produce such a small amount of energy now, even massive percentage increases in solar and wind power will have an overall insignificant effect on our energy mix in the short term.

Owing to these factors, natural gas, rather than clean energy, has taken advantage of the rapid decline in coal usage. When coal plants in Vermont and Wisconsin recently closed, natural gas plants replaced them. Although much cleaner than coal, natural gas burning still emits greenhouse gasses, exacerbating climate change. However, given the immense unreliability and costliness of solar and wind, natural gas is a sensible, economical choice. Thus, because of renewable energy’s challenge in competing with fossil fuels, the future of solar and wind power looks bleak in the short term.

In the long term, potential new power storage technology and the rapidly falling costs of renewable energy give reason for hope. However, immediate action is needed to reduce carbon emissions to combat the potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change in the short term. Environmentally conscious citizens cannot afford to wait for the cost of solar and wind power to drop.

The Promise of Nuclear Power

Luckily, there exists an energy source capable of creating a more substantial immediate change in America’s energy mix, and which, unlike solar and wind power, is comparatively inexpensive and reliable.

Nuclear power already comprises almost two thirds of non-fossil fuel electricity in the United States and is therefore poised to exert a significant change. Because the United States currently uses considerably more nuclear than solar and wind power, each percentage point growth in nuclear power has a much greater effect than a percentage point growth in solar or wind power. For instance, if solar power usage in America increased by a massive fivefold, coal and natural gas usage for electricity would decline by less than 5 percent. By contrast, a fivefold increase in nuclear power production would provide enough electricity for the entire country. Thus, the potential benefits realized by focusing on nuclear power are far greater than renewable energy.

Nuclear power, unlike the prohibitively expensive solar and wind power options, is cost-effective in the short term and the long term. According to the same Brookings report that demonstrated the immense costs of solar and wind power, nuclear power only requires 1.04 cents per kWh in capital investment, compared to 18.74 and 5.64 cents for solar and wind. Furthermore, when factoring in the externalities of carbon emissions, nuclear power actually yields a net gain of 4.12 cents per kWh, compared with the losses of 13.63 cents for solar and 0.87 cents for wind—a much better bargain. Thus, transitioning to nuclear power is a cost-effective option.

Not only is nuclear power more reliable than solar and wind, but also it is the most reliable of all energy sources. While solar panels require sun, wind turbines require wind, and coal and natural gas shipments can be hindered by extreme weather, nuclear power can be produced in any weather with consistency and reliability. Additionally, nuclear material’s extremely small size per unit energy makes transportation far simpler and less vulnerable to extreme weather. According to one analysis, nuclear power’s operational efficiency (the ratio of input to output) is 86 percent, compared with 56 percent for natural gas, 55 percent for coal and 31 percent for wind. To reliably provide the same quantity of power as one nuclear plant, 7.3 solar power plants or 4.3 wind power plants would be needed. Because of its reliability, nuclear power represents an incredibly efficient option.

Although nuclear power is rarely grouped with solar and wind, it too is clean and environmentally friendly. Nuclear power is not a fossil fuel and does not emit greenhouse gasses when consumed. Also, because one uranium pellet the size of a fingertip yields as much energy as one ton of coal and 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas, nuclear material does not have a large environmental impact through transportation. According to the EIA, nuclear energy was responsible for 40g per kWh of power in lifetime CO2 emissions, which is comparable to renewable energy and far below fossil fuels in environmental impact. (Renewable energy ranges from 23-42g, while fossil fuels range from 523-1205g). Furthermore, when examining the advanced technology that the EIA hopes each source could make use of in future, nuclear power is cleaner than any other source of energy. If the goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, nuclear power is the best choice.

Because nuclear power typically evokes images of HAZMAT suits and radiation symbols, it faces the impediment that the public perceives it as dangerous. This is an erroneous misconception, however, as nuclear energy is actually one of the safest sources of energy. Except for a few very high-profile accidents, such as Chernobyl, nuclear energy is responsible for relatively few deaths or injuries. From 1971-2009, nuclear power, according to a NASA study, led to the 4,900 deaths, almost all resulting from the Chernobyl reactor accident. Although useful as a scare tactic, the Chernobyl reactor accident was largely caused by the lax Soviet safety standards, which were far less stringent than the existing US safety standards. Western nuclear reactors have stricter safety standards that are still improving. Though a person may reasonably contend that any number of fatalities is unacceptable, a perfectly safe source of energy is realistically not feasible at present. The safety goal should, be to mitigate the harm done by the production and consumption of energy. Nuclear fuel can achieve this goal by replacing the most lethal and dangerous fuel—coal.

Compared to nuclear energy, coal—the most prevalent source of electricity generation worldwide—is much more lethal. Despite a 20th-century decline, coal-mining accidents have still caused the death of thousands of Americans since World War II. Furthermore, coal-caused air pollution prematurely kills thirteen thousand Americans annually. However, coal’s fatal consequences in the United States pale in comparison to less developed nations’ death tolls. In China, for instance, the government recently celebrated that coal mining was responsible for fewer than one thousand miner deaths in a single year, although even that number is thought to be an underestimate. Air pollution accounts for 366,000 premature deaths in China and 100,000 premature deaths in India per year. As horrifying as these statistics are, they do not consider coal’s role in exacerbating climate change, which is likely to cause hundreds of thousands of deaths. According to the NASA study, the deadliness of fossil fuels, especially coal, means that nuclear power actually saved 1.84 million lives from 1971-2009. This is number is likely another understatement, given that in 2009 the true extent of coal’s deadliness was not fully appreciated. Thus, while any deaths from nuclear power are tragic, eschewing nuclear power will not save lives; in fact, eschewing nuclear power will do the opposite by leading to greater use of coal and, consequently, more tragic deaths.

Furthermore, while the dangers of nuclear waste is often cited as justification for rejecting nuclear power, most of these concerns are also based on misconceptions. First, unlike most toxic waste products from energy production or mining, nuclear waste can be reprocessed and recycled. Only a fraction of the waste produced from nuclear electricity generation actually remains as waste. Of the 300 million tons of toxic wastes produced annually in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) nations, conditioned radioactive waste (derived from nuclear power generation) comprises only 97,200 tons. When compared with the four hundred thousand tons of toxic waste generated in the form of ash from a coal power plant per year, the twenty-seven tons of used fuel from a nuclear plant of the same power capacity is but a small fraction. Moreover, this twenty-seven tons of nuclear waste reduces to three tons when the fuel is reprocessed. Although many concerned citizens worry about the dangers from the transport of this fuel, in the last forty-five years, the transportation of used fuel has never caused a single injury or dollar of property damage. While some see the length of time nuclear waste remains toxic as uniquely dangerous, 97 percent of nuclear waste decays within a few decades. Even the small amount of nuclear waste that remains radioactive for thousands of years compares favorably to the indefinite length of time that many other toxic materials, such as cadmium and mercury, remain. Therefore, as with pollution concerns, widespread anxiety about nuclear waste is similarly based on misconceptions.

Given these factors, the United States should encourage the continued growth in nuclear power.

The West’s Abandonment of Nuclear Power

Nuclear power grew rapidly in the forty years from 1973 to 2013, from 0.9 percent of total world energy consumption to 4.8 percent, and in the OECD from 1.3 percent to 9.9 percent. Despite its reliance on fossil fuels, the United States still leads the world in nuclear power, producing approximately one-third of the world’s total. Furthermore, the United States continues to dominate the world in the fields of nuclear technology and nuclear engineering. Thus Western countries have always led the world in nuclear power capacity.

Despite its former embrace of nuclear energy, the West is now tragically abandoning it. According to the EIA, nearly all of the expected twofold increase in nuclear energy production over the next twenty-five years will come from China. Perhaps because China’s air pollution problem makes it acutely aware of the lives saved by nuclear power, China increased its nuclear energy usage by 30 percent in 2015. The United States, Europe, and Japan have seen a reduction in nuclear energy production in the last few years and are all expected to experience real declines in nuclear power. Before the Fukushima accident in 2011, Japan was the third largest consumer of nuclear energy, and had been generating 30 percent of its energy from nuclear power, with the intention of increasing it to 40 percent. Since Fukushima, Japan has struggled against a protesting populace to restart its nuclear reactors, and was thus forced to get 84 percent of its energy from imported fossil fuels. Similarly, Germany, whose public does not approve of nuclear power, has seen its share of energy from nuclear fuel decline from 25 percent in 2011 to 16 percent in 2015. This, of course, led to an increase in damaging coal usage, which now accounts for 50 percent of Germany’s electricity generation.

Even the United States, the world leader in nuclear power, is pulling back due to mistaken government action and an uninformed electorate. As US natural gas production has increased by 50 percent in the past decade due to the fracking revolution, Congress and state legislatures have passed “green” laws that subsidize or encourage solar and wind but neglect nuclear power. Since 2013, five American nuclear reactors have closed, and another seven are slated for an early closure. The United States, with subsidies for renewables and fossil fuels, as well as existing massive safety regulations on nuclear power, has discouraged further investment in nuclear energy.

Shifting American public opinion on the issue of nuclear power helps to explain why the government is abandoning such a reliable and inexpensive form of clean energy. According to Gallup, nuclear power was, in 2016, for the first time ever, opposed by more Americans than favored it (54 percent to 44 percent), compared with 62 percent favoring to 33 percent opposing in 2010. According to the same Gallup survey, nuclear power faces its strongest opposition from Democrats, who recently found their champion when Bernie Sanders called for a moratorium on nuclear energy. This shift in public opinion is likely due to misconceptions about nuclear power.

Perhaps because they do not recognize the improbability of a nuclear accident and do not understand nuclear power’s pivotal role in combating climate change as a reliable and inexpensive source of clean energy, the American people are turning against nuclear power. However, those Americans who live near plants—in a unique position to understand the safety implications and environmental impact of nuclear power—disproportionately support nuclear power. According to a 2013 survey, 81 percent of Americans living near nuclear power plants support nuclear energy, far greater than the national average. Furthermore, once they’ve been told that nuclear power is an important source of clean energy, 86 percent of Americans believe it should form a critical component of America’s future energy mix, including 59 percent who opposed nuclear energy before understanding its role as a clean energy source. Thus Americans, and their representatives, would likely be far more supportive of nuclear power if they knew more about it.

The Way Forward

Because nuclear power is inexpensive, safe, environmentally friendly, and reliable, it should be a major pillar in America’s energy future. There are a few essential steps that the United States should take to that end.

First, environmental legislation should stop focusing on the distinction between traditional and renewable energy and should instead embrace a distinction between clean and dirty fuels. Every piece of legislation aimed at reducing carbon emissions should treat nuclear in the same “clean” category as solar and wind power. Every subsidy that solar or wind power receives, nuclear should receive as well; for every dollar spent on solar and wind research and development, at least one dollar should go to nuclear energy research and development towards lower costs so that nuclear can better compete with existing dirty power plants that use coal or natural gas.

Additionally, the United States should work closely with the nuclear power industry to reduce unnecessary, redundant, or detrimental regulations. The American government should make every effort to accommodate the needs of the nuclear industry to avoid further plant closures and encourage new plants to be built. Furthermore, legislation such as the Clean Power Plan, effectively accelerates the transition away from coal. Federal, state and local governments should encourage plants, through taxes on carbon emissions, to switch to nuclear, rather than merely natural gas.

Finally, educating the public on the many benefits of nuclear power is, perhaps, the most important step. As the above polls indicate, an American public with greater knowledge of the safety and environmental benefits of nuclear power will be more supportive of nuclear power. Furthermore, greater public support will discourage protests of local nuclear plants that can force closures and pressure politicians to pass further pro-nuclear energy legislation. A more educated public can enact local level change to transition to nuclear power, can support existing nuclear power plants, and can urge national politicians to embrace pro-nuclear legislation.

Continuing in a quixotic quest for 100 percent solar and wind energy, despite the unlikeliness of tangible benefits in the short term is tantamount to dereliction of duty. Idealism is vital, but unrealistic idealism is harmful. Even as we hold out hope for a future of solar and wind in the long-term, in the short-term we must embrace nuclear power as a less expensive and more reliable clean source of energy.

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.

Adam Chan

Adam Chan is a third-year Fundamentals and Economics double major. This summer, he interned at CNN, focusing on the Russia investigation. Previously he was an intern at the R Street Institute, a think-tank in DC and an extern at the Department of the Interior. At the Gate, Adam was a Senior Writer in his first year and the Opinion Editor last year. On campus, Adam is also President of the UChicago Political Union, is Vice President of Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity, and has been a Team Leader at the institute of Politics. He loves studying political philosophy and history, enjoys playing card and board games with friends, traveling, and eating exotic food.