Past mishaps should not dictate nuclear power’s future

Kalyn Dawes

Eerily abandoned towns covered in a thin layer of untouched moss provide relief to the otherwise flat and desolate plains surrounding Chernobyl, Ukraine. Three-eyed, five-eared bunnies prance through small tufts of radioactive purple grass as the glowing raccoon-birds struggle to take flight. While nuclear power paints decrepit scenes like this in most people’s minds, in reality, it is an impactful and attainable solution to climate change.

Nuclear power’s reliability, environmental cleanliness, low operation costs and energy efficiency place it far ahead of fossil fuel energy sources such as coal, oil and natural gas. Despite its numerous benefits, nuclear power’s name is tarnished by previous nuclear incidents. However, with new technological advancements, this clean source of energy could revolutionize modern power.

Nuclear reactors, which are used to generate nuclear power, vary in structure between boiling water reactors, pressurized water reactors and gas-cooled reactors. However, each follows the general model of producing energy through the fission of uranium-235. Because it requires uranium, nuclear power is not a renewable energy source, but it doesn’t require fossil fuels and therefore is considered a climate change solution. Currently, there are over 400 nuclear reactors used across the world, and nuclear power provides 20 percent of U.S. electricity, making us the global leader in nuclear energy.

Illustration by Kalyn Dawes

Once built, the reactors have very low operational costs. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in the U.S. in 2014, average fuel costs for nuclear power plants were $.0077 kilowatts per hour (kWh). Fossil steam plants cost $.0294 per kWh and gas turbines cost $.0371 per kWh. This means that powering an average house using only nuclear power would cost $80.07 per year, while using only fossil steam plants would cost $242.28 and only using gas turbines would cost $305.73. This is a significantly cheaper form of energy that is hardly utilized across the world, where energy is not only valuable, but now essential for modern civilization. 

In addition to its economic benefits, nuclear reactors are a much more reliable source of energy. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, nuclear reactors operate 92.3 percent of the year, 336 out of 365 days, whereas U.S. hydroelectric systems only produce energy 138 days per year, wind turbines 127 days per year and solar electricity 92 days per year. Even plants powered by coal or natural gas only generated electricity about half the time in 2018. Unlike other clean energies, the stability and reliability of nuclear power means that electricity is provided despite environmental conditions such as wind, tides and sun, which are often a point of concern when proposing a conversion to clean energy.

However, despite the numerous benefits, many are blinded by the stigma that surrounds nuclear power’s safety. Since nuclear reactors were created, there have been three major meltdowns: Chernobyl, Three Mile and Fukushima. In Chernobyl, there were 54 immediate deaths, but there could be as many as 60,000 that died decades later from radiation-induced cancer. Many argue that the energy produced by these power plants is not worth the risk of killing so many individuals. 

It is impossible to contend that nuclear power does not come with the potential for danger. However, new technology could dramatically reduce the risks of future meltdowns and hopefully reduce the stigma around nuclear energy. Currently, half of the nuclear reactors in the U.S. are over 30 years old. Their old technology results in an essential reliance on human operation and a lack of advanced systems for cooling in emergency situations such as earthquakes. One of the most common nuclear reactor designs is the Mark 1, which is nearly 40 years old. The reactor’s allegedly thin containment walls have caused partial meltdowns in Japan, yet there are still 23 of these models active in the U.S. However, recently companies such as Terrapower are designing safer nuclear power plants using newer technology. Rather than using enriched uranium, they use depleted uranium, which has not shown to be carcinogenic to humans in the rare event of a meltdown. Using these new resources, a meltdown would have fewer to no deaths from radiation exposure. Additionally, new technology has allowed Terrapower to run a virtual power plant to simulate the operation of one of these high-tech reactors, eliminating the risk of operator error, which was the cause of incidents such as Chernobyl. Terrapower was planning to build a prototype reactor in Xiapu, China. However, the project had to be abandoned after a technology transfer limitation was implemented by the Trump administration in January 2019.

In the long run, not addressing global warming through alternative energy sources poses a greater risk to society than the minute risk of advanced technology failure. Nuclear power is certainly not risk-free, but an understanding of new advancements would prompt initiative and reduce the stigma around nuclear power, making it a more viable future source of energy.