With ongoing global negotiations to address Iran’s nuclear capabilities, we’ve heard quite a bit lately about nuclear power’s capacity as a weapon. North Korea has also been the subject of much defense speculation, earning United Nations sanctions for test launches held in recent years. Amid all the talk about nuclear power’s menacing threat, it is important that we do not forget about its tremendous potential for high-quality energy production in a low-carbon society.
The 2011 generator meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi in Japan sparked an international wave of anti-nuclear sentiments that, in countries like the United States, has resulted in the decommissioning of many nuclear generators. Such decisions are troublesome. Though safety and waste disposal issues must be addressed, it is important that we not rule out this clean and efficient source of power as a substantial component of tomorrow’s energy mix.
Among the U.S. generating stations that have been taken offline in recent years is the Vermont Yankee plant along the Connecticut River, which permanently ceased operations in January. This closure came on the heels of closures at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in Southern California, which once provided electricity to 1.4 million homes, and the Crystal River plant in Florida. Utility companies have cited high maintenance and repair costs, made all the more extreme by booming competition from natural gas, as the impetus for these closures. But an active civil movement in opposition to nuclear power has also encouraged these shutdowns.
Opponents to nuclear have vocalized concerns over the dangerous radioactive waste that results from the nuclear fissioning process. Wastes have a half-life of many tens of thousands of years. Because most radioactive substances require 10 half-lives to achieve safe levels for human exposure, nuclear waste requires hundreds of thousands, even millions of years of storage and confinement. For years, federal regulators attempted to negotiate a plan to store the country’s nuclear wastes at a repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Immense objection by Nevadans, however, eventually collapsed the plan, and currently all nuclear waste is stored at the sites of its generation.
But a new frontier for nuclear energy is in the works. Laboratories around the country — usually situated in sparsely populated areas like Idaho Falls, Idaho — are working to perfect new reactor technologies that substantially reduce the amount of waste produced and use sodium, not water, as the primary coolant in power generation. New safety mechanisms are continuously evaluated and installed. In fact, in 2011 the Nuclear Regulatory Commission estimated that the chances of an earthquake in tremor-prone California damaging the reactor core of the now-defunct San Onofre power plant were one in 58,000. The construction of plants fitted with cutting-edge technologies could greatly diminish the already low chances of an accidental radioactive release.
Continued use of nuclear power will also diminish our reliance on the conventional fossil fuels: coal, oil and natural gas. Climate scientists are in nearly unanimous agreement on the human origin of current global warming. Because nuclear energy does not depend on the combustion of fossil fuels, it is a promising source of electricity as the global community seeks to minimize its emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Computer modeling conducted by the British Meteorological Office concluded that the only course of action in achieving a manageable climate scenario — less than 2 degrees centigrade warming — demands the deployment of nuclear power.
Though nuclear power has historically polarized environmentalists, the remarkably low chance of a radiation leak cannot stand against the remarkably high promise of zero-carbon energy, especially at a time when our decisions about energy-use will be critical in determining the trajectory of man-made climate change.
Austin Reagan is a junior majoring in environmental studies and political science. His column, “The Scientific Method,” runs Mondays.