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Rethinking Nuclear Energy to Replace Fossil Fuels – Highly Productive, Low Land Usage, and WAY Safer than Most Think

 “Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds” – Robert Oppenheimer, Leader of the Manhattan Project. 

  

Table of Contents

1.0 World War II & Entering the Atomic Age

2.0 Nuclear Energy: A highly productive, efficient, and CLEANER alternative to fossil fuels

3.0 Evaluating Major Past Nuclear Energy Disasters

4.0 Nuclear Energy’s proven track record of safety, especially in the U.S. and Europe

5.0 Challenges to Nuclear Energy

6.0 Conclusion

7.0 Sources

 

 

1.0 World War II & Entering the Atomic Age

 

About 75 years ago was the first, and thankfully only, uses of nuclear power in armed conflict with two atomic bombs dropped on Japan, one in Hiroshima and one in Nagaski. 

 

With tens of thousands dead, instantly in a blinding flash of light, and ultimately 150,000 lives lost – it remains one of the saddest chapters in human history. 

 

However, despite the carnage of the atomic bomb and thermonuclear weapons, the mushroom cloud had a silver lining for the world: Nuclear energy.

 

 

2.0 Nuclear Energy: A highly productive, efficient, and CLEANER alternative to fossil fuels

 

Nuclear energy is both an incredibly powerful and surprisingly clean source of energy.

 

With the global rise of concern with climate change and carbon emissions in general, the public often forgets that nuclear power is the second LARGEST source of clean energy (after hydropower) in the United States despite only completing three new operational facilities in the last 30 years.

 

Without nuclear energy, the world would have emitted much, much more carbon into the atmosphere in the last 65 years, especially because there were NO other cost efficient or effective sources of clean energy.

 

According to energy.gov, “Nuclear Energy generates more than 800 billion kilowatt hours of electricity each year and produces more than 55% of the nation’s emissions-free electricity. This avoids more than 470 million metric tons of carbon each year, which is the equivalent of removing 100 million cars off of the road.

 

The thermal energy from nuclear reactors may also be used to decarbonize other energy-intensive sectors such as transportation – the largest contributor to carbon pollution.”

 

Keep in mind, these figures are just for nuclear energy in the U.S., other countries in Europe as well as Russia, China, and South Korea all produce huge amounts of nuclear energy that also reduce global fossil fuel carbon emissions significantly.  

 

For example, France produces over 70% of its total electricity from nuclear energy!

 

In addition to very low emissions, there are several other environmental benefits and advantages to nuclear energy.

 

Nuclear energy is also highly efficient when it comes to land of use. This is especially true in comparison to other clean energy sources, such as wind or solar.

 

Wind and solar farms are highly, highly land intensive, and when compared to nuclear energy, not nearly as efficient.

 

The office of Nuclear Energy gives some great examples, “A typical 1,000-megawatt nuclear facility in the United States needs a little more than 1 square mile to operate. NEI says wind farms require 360 times more land area to produce the same amount of electricity and solar photovoltaic plants require 75 times more space.

 

To put that in perspective, you would need more than 3 million solar panels to produce the same amount of power as a typical commercial reactor or more than 430 wind turbines (capacity factor not included).”

 

It’s important to remember that there are ZERO wind or solar farms in the U.S. that produce the same amount of electricity as the average nuclear power plant – in other words, the most productive wind or solar farms still don’t compare to the average nuclear plant.

 

The bottom line on nuclear energy: it’s highly powerful, efficient, clean, and conserves land better than most clean energy sources.

 

 

3.0 Evaluating Major Past Nuclear Energy Disasters

 

We have all heard of Chernobyl and seen the documentaries. More recently, Fukushima comes to mind.

When some think of Nuclear Energy, their first thought may be of horrific accidents and explosions similar to an actual thermonuclear explosion or a “mushroom cloud” and scorched earth.

 

But the truth is, nuclear energy is amongst the safest forms of electricity generation, and compared to the air pollution risks of fossil fuels, they are in many ways, much safer.

 

Let’s dive into the numbers. There are really only four major accidents with significant deaths in history: Chernobyl in Ukraine (1986), Fukushima in Japan (2011), Kyshtym in Russia (1957), and the Windscale Fire in the UK (1957).

 

For the Kyshtym disaster in Russia, the death count is unknown, and ranges wildly from 50-9,000. That’s a very wide range, and important to note that this was in the very beginnings of the Cold War where the technology was very new and also very secretive. There were only 66 confirmed cases of chronic radiation poisoning attributed to this disaster, and although there may have been up to 9,000 total deaths over a course of decades, the lack of transparency and short and long term evacuations were a large driver to the large amount of possible deaths that were likely due to cancer resulting from exposure of a contaminated area of radiation poisoning.

 

The Windscale Fire was another disaster very early on in the nuclear energy era during the same year as Kyshtym in 1957, with between 100-240 total deaths due to a reactor fire that lasted three days. However, It was considered much less severe than Kyshtym, with multiple radiation leaks before the fire - and it was also a very secretive situation given the national security implications of all nuclear technology at the time.

 

Chernobyl is considered the worst nuclear accident in history, and although less than 100 direct deaths at the time of the incident, there may have been 10,000+ across all of Europe due to the levels of radiation and chemicals spewed into the atmosphere as a result of the disaster. Once again, similar to Kyshtym, there was a lack of transparency around this event and extreme secrecy so that there were not enough evacuations early on as well as a lack of an expedient and full clean up of the immediate and surrounding areas.

 

Fukushima is considered the worst nuclear energy disaster since Chernobyl, but unlike the other three accidents, it was facilitated by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake which caused a 15 meter tsunami. The natural disasters disabled the power supply of three reactors, which were subsequently unable to cool and largely melted, which in turn released large amounts of radiation. In complete contrast with the other three largest disasters, there were almost zero direct deaths from radiation (1 confirmed death from radiation poisoning in 2018), however, over 18,500 people died from the earthquake and tsunami and subsequent evacuation.

 

When you look at these four major nuclear disasters, it’s important to mention that, with the exception of Fukushima, they are in the beginning stages of Nuclear Energy and there have been many new technologies, containment measures, safety regulations and rules put in place.

 

 

4.0 Nuclear Energy’s proven track record of safety, especially in the U.S. and Europe

 

It’s been around since World War II, and despite the public’s perceived dangers of nuclear energy in general across the world, it has had a largely strong track record of success and safety. 

 

 

The truth is that nuclear energy today, especially in the United States and Europe, is incredibly safe with minimal accidents and shutdowns, and has an industry safety standard far higher than most other industries.

 

Nuclear reactors have multiple safety systems in place, as well as multiple redundant systems in place to minimize an accident.

 

According to Government Technology Emergency Management,

“At nuclear power plants there are backups to backups to backups. There are so many redundant systems for a single purpose it would take multiple failures and kind of a completely unlikely scenario in order for a consequence to actually occur,” said Brandon Reyes, a Nuclear Regulatory Commission resident inspector at the Beaver Valley nuclear power plant in Shippingport.”

 

Additionally, the nuclear energy industry has an extremely low rate of workplace accidents, lower than many industries, with only 0.3 - 0.9 (depending on source and varying over the last decade) industrial safety accidents per 200,000 worker hours.

 

According to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), “Data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that it is safer to work at a nuclear power plant than in the manufacturing sector, leisure and hospitality industries, and financial sectors.”

 

Nuclear energy has received intense public scrutiny over the decades, and few would think that today it is safer to work than the financial sector!

 

5.0 Challenges to Nuclear Energy:

 

The sheer size of nuclear power plants is amongst the largest challenge, as they require seemingly endless licenses, permits, inspections, etc. and are subject to tremendous global, national, and state regulations.

 

Although of course this is necessary with nuclear energy, it makes the creation of new power plants very expensive and is often difficult to find investment.

 

Similarly, there are often very long lead times and construction delays, often taking a plant several years to complete.

 

During this long time to complete construction, the energy market may have changed dramatically with new or more efficient energy technologies on the market, for example a big improvement in solar, wind, geothermal, or battery storage technology.

 

Or, there could be a drastic price decrease in traditional energy sources, like natural gas, oil, or coal.

 

These risk factors, coupled with the public’s scrutiny of the nuclear energy industry in general, explain why there have virtually no new nuclear plant construction projects in 30 years in the United States, and a similarly large decrease in construction across the western world.

 

According to the Office of Nuclear Energy, “Building a nuclear power plant can be discouraging for stakeholders. Conventional reactor designs are considered multi-billion dollar infrastructure projects. High capital costs, licensing and regulation approvals, coupled with long lead times and construction delays, have also deterred public interest.”

 

6.0 Conclusion

 

When it comes to energy, there is no simple answer. However, it has become clear that must move away from fossil fuels, both nationally and globally. As we have seen less than a decade ago with the Fukushima disaster, there is always the possibility of accidents. With nuclear energy, the stakes are even higher as radiation and contaminated land, air, or water can cost lives, billions to clean up, and land areas that can take decades to become radiation free.

 

However, we often forget the long and cumulative risks of fossil fuels.

Collectively, how much does carbon dioxide cost society in terms of air pollution, illness, and lives?

 

 

The World Health Organization estimates that over 4 million people die globally from outdoor air pollution, with a large percentage being the result of fossil fuel emissions.

 

The WHO states, “An estimated 4.2 million premature deaths globally are linked to ambient air pollution, mainly from heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, and acute respiratory infections in children.

 

Worldwide ambient air pollution accounts for:

 

29% of all deaths and disease from lung cancer

17% of all deaths and disease from acute lower respiratory infection

24% of all deaths from stroke

25% of all deaths and disease from ischemic heart disease

43% of all deaths and disease from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease”

 

When we compare nuclear energy to other renewables, the picture is quite hazy as some of these technologies are premature while others are already highly efficient. Solar and wind farms efficiency and production may fluctuate wildly based on geography, technology, etc.

 

However, with the exception of hydropower, nuclear energy is the cheapest and efficient and most proven clean energy source.

 

And most importantly, when we compare nuclear energy to the risks and benefits of most fossil fuels – from the perspective of both our health and the PLANET’s survival - it would be safe to say that nuclear energy wins quite easily.

 

 

It may be time to reconsider nuclear energy and further its development nationally and internationally, ESPECIALLY when in regards to replacing old and heavily polluting fossil fuel plants.

 

 

 

7.0 Sources:

https://www.powermag.com/big-gains-for-tiny-nuclear-reactors/

https://www.energy.gov/ne/articles/advantages-and-challenges-nuclear-energy?fbclid=IwAR0a4vId4FKPJeMVLgQAdMOOahqbZua1ZE8FrFRuCDKpXZBSMxWO3Ijjzng

https://www.nei.org/resources/fact-sheets/safety-nuclear-energy-industry-highest-priority#:~:text=Industrial%20safety.,down%20over%20the%20last%20decade.

https://www.nei.org/resources/statistics/top-15-nuclear-generating-countries

https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/osh.pdf

https://www.energy.gov/ne/articles/big-potential-nuclear-microreactors

https://www.nei.org/news/2015/land-needs-for-wind-solar-dwarf-nuclear-plants

https://cen.acs.org/articles/91/web/2013/04/Nuclear-Power-Prevents-Deaths-Causes.html#:~:text=They%20similarly%20estimated%20that%20the,with%20the%201.8%20million%20figure.

https://ourworldindata.org/what-was-the-death-toll-from-chernobyl-and-fukushima#:~:text=Deaths%20from%20Chernobyl,in%20the%20days%20which%20followed.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chernobyl_disaster

https://www.thevintagenews.com/2018/01/17/the-kyshtym-disaster-of-1957/

https://www.dw.com/en/fukushima-how-the-ocean-became-a-dumping-ground-for-radioactive-waste/a-52710277

https://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/safety-and-security/safety-of-plants/fukushima-daiichi-accident.aspx

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-45423575#:~:text=The%20Fukushima%20meltdown%20was%20the,were%20forced%20from%20their%20homes.

https://www.who.int/airpollution/ambient/health-impacts/en/#:~:text=An%20estimated%204.2%20million%20premature,and%20disease%20from%20lung%20cancer

 https://www.atomicarchive.com/img/science/effects/mushroom-cloud-1.jpg

 https://i.pinimg.com/originals/a2/d2/43/a2d24387f3ca8f3dbcf757d41d4da956.gif 

https://cdnuploads.aa.com.tr/uploads/Contents/2020/05/11/thumbs_b_c_1f0b7504369b5e9581e33ee734be7c73.jpg?v=101948

https://hazmatmag.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/fukishema-nuclear-disaster-1030x635.png

https://i.guim.co.uk/img/media/54e705f9edd7bfac3d4267c028ce3a2fc8abeea1/0_0_3464_2078/master/3464.jpg?width=620&quality=85&auto=format&fit=max&s=f9b9e32b5fb778b3f23237eaddbd453e

http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2016/reconsidering-risks-nuclear-power/

https://i2.wp.com/sitn.hms.harvard.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Power-Graphs.png?resize=768%2C636

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/7/7e/Electricity_in_France.svg/500px-Electricity_in_France.svg.png

https://static.euronews.com/articles/stories/04/86/53/90/602x338_cmsv2_bd7e1fe8-b120-55f5-bfbe-2b9502e330af-4865390.jpg

https://www.cfact.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Infographic-nuclear-solar-wind-footprints.jpg

https://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2012/09/26/article-0-0F1440B300000578-656_468x286.jpg

https://images.slideplayer.com/21/6268596/slides/slide_26.jpg

https://laquilaactive.com/blogs/news/riding-dirty-comparing-plane-and-car-emissions

https://laquilaactive.com/blogs/news/5-companies-leading-renewable-energy

https://laquilaactive.com/blogs/news/renewable-energy-rundown-wind-energy

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