Climate change is one of the most important issues facing society. If no action is taken to help fix the environment, the risk for damage to the Earth is going to continue. The damage from current use of fossil fuels has immediate effects on our environment; it is no longer a concern that can be dealt with later. The impact of fossil fuel energy is evident in rising sea levels, tears in the ozone layer, and record-breaking temperatures across the world, among other effects. Transitioning to renewable energy sources is critical to help mitigate climate change, and one of the most promising sectors is in nuclear energy.
Nuclear power has a bad reputation because of accidents like Three Mile Island and Fukushima Daiichi. Civilians fear that if a nuclear plant is located near their homes, the worst will happen. However, nuclear power is the most powerful and efficient source of energy at our disposal, and we should take advantage of it accordingly. If political and technological issues can be resolved, nuclear power has the capacity to take over as the world’s primary energy source.
One of the biggest concerns facing nuclear power is what to do with spent fuel. There needs to be a safe facility to store the radioactive material, which still houses plutonium and other dangerous nuclear elements, after the energy has been extracted. These storage facilities need to be hundreds of feet below the ground so the natural radiation is prevented from damaging towns. There is significant public concern surrounding nuclear radiation leaking into communities because the technology is still developing to keep spent fuel at a safe distance from people.
In the United States, the nuclear waste debate has centered on the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository. Yucca Mountain, a nuclear spent fuel repository in New Mexico, was approved by Congress in 2002 and then decommissioned in 2011 for nontechnical, political purposes. Then-Energy Secretary Steven Chu argued that political dilemmas meant that Yucca Mountain was not a feasible option for a spent fuel site, and that alternatives should be sought. The state of Nevada, with its low population density and massive desert surface area, was seen as a potential relocation site; however, citizens in Nevada protested against the presence of a spent fuel repository located in their state, which effectively killed the project.
There is hope that one day storage facilities may no longer be needed for spent fuel because all the nuclear material could be depleted. However, the technology for that type of efficient processing does not yet exist, so it is necessary to develop technology that mitigates the danger of spent fuel in the interim. Technological advancements could provide more confidence in nuclear power as the optimal renewable energy source.
One example of this technology currently being explored is the fast-neutron reactor (FNR). These plants are designed to use spent fuel as a nuclear energy source. There are only a handful of currently operating fast-neutron reactors, all located in China, Russia, or India. However, these facilities still pose significant safety risks and remain in the testing stages. The hazards of FNRs include a higher likelihood for fires in the plant and leaks of sodium coolant. As a result, countries are not willing to invest in FNRs at this time. That being said, FNR developments are currently being analyzed for possibilities of future technological advancement.
The aim of modern FNR research is to make reactors more advanced, safer, and ideally available as replacements for carbon-based power. However, these efforts are slower than optimal. US governmental research of nuclear technology, mainly through the Department of Energy, is being funded less than a few decades ago because the allocated DOE money is funnelled into nuclear weaponry. Because of the lackluster funding and pace of development, private industry has started to enter the FNR market. TerraPower, a private nuclear technology company, is working to advance FNR technology and modernize current reactor designs. TerraPower is creating a newer FNR to have the ability to extract power straight from unenriched uranium and depleted uranium sources. Even with all the questions that nuclear power poses, scientists and engineers have shown they have the potential to fix these problems even as government drags its feet on the issue.
With the right tools, nuclear energy can be made safe. The right minds together at the right time will help technological developments, coupled with the policy counterparts, make an impact on the world stage. That being said, the US government has been hesitant to invest in nuclear technology. The political discussion of nuclear power relates to the idea that nuclear power is excessively dangerous, but this is more myth than fact. There are few, if any, deaths per year due to nuclear power, and the disasters that fuel paranoia about nuclear power are very rare. Nuclear power provides more benefits in terms of energy produced than any other renewable energy option. If nuclear power is proven to be safer and a more efficient option, why hasn’t it become more ubiquitous?
The technology to help advance nuclear power is within the realm of possibility, but the politics of advancing technology are incredibly challenging. If the fraught relationship between policymakers and scientists can be ameliorated, then nuclear technological advancement can become a reality.
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