Technically, no, nuclear energy is not “green”, or renewable, energy.
It is, however, clean energy. Ideally, we would operate entirely on renewable energy sources, but our current situation is not ideal and nuclear energy is scary. That being said, let’s talk about it.
First, some background: we’re in trouble. Anthropogenic climate change is happening. Increased greenhouse gas production combined with deforestation causes global temperatures to rise. Since we first started data gathering in 1880, global temperatures have risen from 15 to 16 degrees Celsius While still within Earth’s acceptable temperature range, as global-warming skeptics lovingly remind us, average temperatures will soon exceed a safe range.. At 17 degrees, we will see food supply disruptions and mass animal extinctions.
Now, while a lot of this is common knowledge, global leaders continue to disagree on what our solution should be. With a national debt of almost $19 trillion, many Americans think we have bigger fish to fry than climate change. Besides, carbon regulations are an attack on businesses and a drag on our economy, which will slow down the rate at which we develop environmentally-beneficial technology. And even if the United States does get its act together, there are over forty third-world countries that are going to use the cheapest resources possible, coal and oil, to industrialize. What are we supposed to do with these countries? Force them to use technology that even we won’t bother paying for? Push them back into the economic dark ages? Take away their outdated cars and trains until they start using technology that they don’t have access to? Bulldoze their slums so we can make way for a legitimate trash collection system? Who are we to deny other countries their Industrial Revolution? Look at the facts: if the richest country in the world isn’t willing to shell out for renewable technology for the sake of the future, what makes anyone think that we can make other countries use it when coal and oil are literally right beneath the ground they stand on?
An obvious fix is renewable energy. We have quite a few options: solar, wind, hydro, biomass, and geothermal. Solar, wind and hydro are ideal, and it is possible to get the entire planet running on them.. However, technology must advance in order for global reliance on these renewable resources, and time is of the essence.. In order to preserve our planet, we must become carbon neutral as quickly as possible. However, that’s going to cost a pretty penny, and we just don’t have that kind of cash to spare. Now, someone is going to say, “if we just decreased the military budget, then…” and they’re not wrong. There are a lot of things we could do if we decreased the military budget, but that isn’t going to happen. We must plan for the world we’re in, not some fantasy where the United States doesn’t occupy over eighty different countries. We’ll get there, hopefully. But our environmental efforts shouldn’t hinge on money that we’re just never going to receive. Luckily, if we play our cards right, we won’t need the money because economics is on the side of renewable energy systems.
The coal industry is dying. It would be dying, even without Obama’s so-called “War on Coal”. Natural gas, renewable energy, and increased air-quality standards are forcing it off the market worldwide., The demand for coal is waning and governments that still depend on it, like China’s, can easily buy it from countries with leaders that don’t vilify them, which means we’ll have no one to sell to.
The oil industry is trickier, but still dying. It’s still cheap, still efficient, most modes of transportation depend on it, and major oil tycoons play a large role in our governmental affairs. However, there are some new kids on the block. We have renewables, electric cars, and a younger generation that believes overwhelmingly that anthropogenic climate change is occurring and decreased use of oil will alleviate the issue. With Tesla’s Model 3 production set to begin in July of 2017, we will only see increased opportunities to decrease our oil usage in the coming years (although it should be noted that electric cars receive heavy subsidies from the government, which leads many to believe that they’re doing better than they actually are).
So, we’re looking good. Renewable technologies continue to improve and industry has begun to phase out our main non-renewable energy sources. . Unfortunately, there’s a catch. The switch to carbon-neutrality cannot occur fast enough with renewables alone.. In fact, even if we use renewables in conjunction with other forms of clean energy, it might still not happen fast enough to keep our climate’s integrity intact. Some even fear that we have already destroyed it beyond repair.
If the entire world suddenly became carbon-neutral, we have enough greenhouse gases in our atmosphere that the earth will continue to warm until we hit about 16.5 degrees Celsius. After that, temperatures will either stagnate or decrease, depending on our carbon emissions from there.
Now, carbon neutrality cannot happen for a while. Most scientists predict that we’ll start to see major damage (food shortages, extinctions, increased floods, droughts and other severe weather occurrences and natural disasters) once we get to 17 degrees Celsius. The current numbers say we’re halfway there, or three-fourths of the way there if you count the time it takes for thermodynamics do their thing. Use of nuclear energy can help prevent the negative effects of climate change, but there’s a lot of opposition from environmentalists and climate-change-deniers alike. To ask why we should bother with nuclear energy at all when our ultimate goal is a 100% renewable system is a perfectly valid question. To put it simply, the technology just isn’t there yet.
Let’s look at solar. It’s great! It’s one of the fastest-growing industries in the United States and it employs over 200,000 people. The price of solar panels has decreased dramatically over the past few years alone and are manufactured in thirteen different countries. However, it’s not without its drawbacks. First of all, of the thirteen countries in which panels are made, none of them are located in South America or Africa. This means that over sixty countries, majority third-world, must depend on foreign imports to access to solar energy. Creating these dependencies on other nations will not help these countries modernize and will only further hinder their struggling economies. They can start to manufacture their own, but not many of them have the necessary resources and few, if any of them, will be able to compete with the prices of countries that have been working on solar energy for years. Further, solar panels simply do not have the energy production efficiency to be competitive with other energy resources. Solar panels in themselves simply don’t produce that much energy; most of them operate at about 14-22% conversion into electricity Solar roadways have received a lot of buzz in recent years but they simply haven’t lived up to the hype. Most solar roadways will have about four hours of ideal energy production per day and transportation of that energy is ultimately costly. Not to mention, at $16 per square foot, the implementation of the panels themselves (which are delicate and still not developed enough to be driven on) will cost four times as much as traditional asphalt, which costs a mere $4 a square. I see solar energy as the future. However, we’re not there yet.
So what about wind energy? This industry has also taken off in recent years. Since wind turbines are generally situated on farmland, they generally have a very minimally detrimental environmental impact, so although there are some concerns about the damage they do to the environment, their effects are negligible. Turbines require a massive area to generate a significant amount of electricity. They’re also manufactured almost exclusively in East Asia, America, and Europe, so many of the countries that need them the most will have to rely on foreign economies for support, which they may not want to do if they are seeking economic independence.
Similarly, hydropower is one of the most efficient forms of renewable energy, but is limited in implementation. Location is difficult, as only a few bodies of water can realistically implement hydropower. We can always build more dams, but this does significant damage to the environment and can eliminate water supplies or drastically increase prices to people living near the dams . Also, most viable hydroelectric dam locations have already been developed in industrialized countries. Hydropower is a great option for many developing countries because public works projects tend to provide temporary economic surges (à la Roosevelt), but locations, again, are limited.
Biomass resources are just energy utilizing plant mass . Examples are burning trees for heat and cooking. This releases copious amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and is a good example of how renewable energy is not necessarily clean, and so, ultimately is its way out.
Geothermal energy is taking advantage of the heat that seeps out of our earth.. It can’t even be used to produce electricity except in a very few places, and it would cost more money to convert it into electricity than could be made by selling it. In most other places, it can be used to heat and cool buildings, but that’s the extent of its immediate use. It just isn’t worth that much.
Again, the goal is to exclusively rely on% on clean, renewable. Much of our technology simply isn’t ready to be launched at a global scale, and we just don’t have enough time to perfect it before we irrevocably damage our planet . The situation may look hopeless, but if we swallow our pride and are willing to compromise on our goal – at least until the technology improves – a solution presents itself: nuclear energy. It’s clean, efficient, cost-effective, and it will buy us time until we can figure out how to make our system 100% renewable. That said, most people don’t really know what it is, and so it scares them.
What is nuclear energy? Nuclear energy is electricity derived from the processing of heat energy by splitting splitting atoms, usually uranium. The heat of atom splitting produces steam, which is used by a turbine to produce electricity. 19.8% of America’s energy comes from nuclear plants, compared to 33.8% from natural gas, 30.4% from coal, and 14.9% from all renewable sources combined (6.5% hydropower, 5.6% wind, 1.5% biomass, 0.9% solar, and 0.4% geothermal). This makes nuclear energy America’s largest source of clean energy.
How does it work? The heat that we get from nuclear energy is produced through fission, which is when one atom splits into two. This process actually happens without human involvement every day, but when we use highly-enriched uranium in a controlled environment, we can harness that energy with turbine generators in a process identical to coal and natural gas electricity production. . The main difference is that nuclear energy does not produce greenhouse gases because the process does not create heat through combustion.
We typically use Uranium-235 in both nuclear energy and bombs. It decays by throwing off alpha radiation, which is two neutrons and two protons bound together. We can split U-235 by “firing” a neutron into its nucleus, which de-stabilizes the atom and causes it to split. Depending on the split, the U-235 atom releases either two or three neutrons, which are captured by surrounding U-235 atoms and causes those to split, too, and continues in a chain reaction for all surrounding U-235 atoms The split itself releases massive amounts of heat and gamma radiation (radiation from high-energy photons). The two atoms that result from the fission later release beta radiation (radiation from superfast electrons), which also produces heat. When a singular U-235 atom decays, it releases about 200 million electron volts. This isn’t much by itself, but in the decay of a standard pound of U-235, we get the energy equivalent of about a million gallons of gasoline.
Most reactors are designed with uranium in mind, but not necessarily. Thorium has many strong proponents, since it’s more common than uranium, can be used both as a fuel and as a way to create U-233 (another fissile form of uranium), and is located nearly everywhere in the world in abundance. However, obtaining thorium’s latent energy value cheaply is no easy task. Since it is fertile (can be converted into fissile material through neutron absorption) rather than fissile, it is not directly usable in a reactor to generate heat. When a thorium atom absorbs a neutron, it transmutes to U-233, which then undergoes the same process that I described for U-235 (the difference between the two is their source: naturally occurring vs “bred” from thorium).
The big question is what do we do with the waste? Nuclear waste is categorized into three levels: high, intermediate, and low. High level waste has been in a reactor for about three years and comprises about 3% of the volume of total nuclear waste. Despite its size, it contains 95% of the radioactive content of total nuclear waste. Intermediate waste includes used filters and various components within the reactor that need to be replaced and are 7% of the volume of total waste but just 4% radioactive content. Low-level waste is 90% of the volume and 1% of the radioactive content and is made up of lightly-contaminated items like tools and work clothing. Intermediate and low-level waste have already established repositories where contaminated items from other nuclear professions(medicine, space research, oil, gas, mining) are disposed. We can do two things with high-level waste: either we can cool it and use it as fuel after about 50 years of storage in pools behind meters of thick material like steel or concrete, or we can dispose it deep underground. The latter of the two is ideal because it leaves room for fewer accidents, but there is no underground facility for high-level waste currently operating. Numerous plans have been floated, but since waste needs to be stored for about 200,000 years, nuclear energy companies choose to secure their used fuel in pools and dry storage tanks. It is, in fact, not their responsibility to permanently store their waste; it is the government’s. Since nuclear energy is still relatively new, very few laws regarding it have actually been enacted on the federal level, so nuclear companies choose the cheaper option. Feasible plans for permanent, safe storage have been floated numerous times, but opposition from liberals and conservatives alike have prevented them from execution.
But what about Fukushima and Chernobyl? Well, neither were built according to modern, US safety standards. Fukushima’s reactor only had a wall that prepared for a 5-meter tsunami and was toppled by a tsunami of 14 meters. Such an occurrence was not unprecedented, but the company wanted to cut costs, so they chose a bad location and used outdated regulation. The system actually worked just fine during the massive earthquake, but since they had not prepared for what they should have, the meltdown happened a mere 14 days before its scheduled shutdown. Chernobyl’s reactor design was also flawed in that it chose to use graphite instead of water to moderate the core’s reactivity, which caused it to become more reactive (produce more heat) and less predictable. The day before the incident, workers were performing a scheduled shutdown and decided to just disable all the plant equipment, including the automatic shutdown mechanisms, which violated safety standards. When the hot waste was lowered into the water to cool, a massive amount of steam was produced and caused power to surge to the reactor core, which was already overly reactive due to the graphite moderator, which caused the first of several explosions. If we build and maintain reactors in accordance to written safety standards, we can prevent these disasters from occurring.
However, our biggest obstacle comes back to the biggest obstacle of the expansion of renewable energy sources: undeveloped countries. Can we trust them to build and operate nuclear energy facilities according to safety standards? They might not necessarily have the money to do so, and although nuclear energy is cheaper in the long-term, the initial building of the facility is costly . Companies cut corners globally, too, even in developed countries. In order for nuclear energy to be as safe as possible, three things need to happen: worldwide nuclear energy safety standards, regulation, and the construction of safe, waste-holding tanks.
Is burying or storing the waste our only option? No! The GE Hitachi Advanced Recycling Center (ARC) uses liquid sodium to control the core reactor instead of water. Sodium-cooling allows the reactor to “burn” its leftover energy (the stuff that makes up nuclear waste). Not only can it burn its own fuel, but it can burn the spent fuel of other reactors, and it emits no greenhouse gases. It does generate its own waste, but this only has to be stored for a few hundred years in comparison to the couple hundred thousand that regular nuclear waste requires. Since used fuel from traditional reactors still has about 95% of its original potential energy, we can use the ARC to get more energy out of less fuel.
Nuclear energy, like renewable energy, is still evolving. It has its drawbacks and ultimately does not represent our end goal, but I support nuclear energy because the stakes are too high not to. People are already dying from anthropogenic climate change and nuclear energy is the immediate solution we need to prevent permanent climate change.
Perhaps my support for this controversial energy source is one of desperation; I’m willing to recognize that. Nuclear energy is dangerous, and no amount of safety standards and technological development will ever make it completely safe. I just don’t think we’re in a position to be picky right now. We can’t just say, “We want clean energy! No, not that clean energy!” I don’t think that, as a planet, we have that luxury. So much damage has been done, and as more and more countries develop, the situation will only grow worse. Nuclear energy can help us here because it’s a lot of bang for our buck. It’s already been established that world powers will not spend their precious renewables until they become obviously cheaper and more than traditional energy sources. What I’m asking for here is a compromise. Earth is not doing well. The coal and oil lobby is waning, but still dangerous. Nuclear energy has proven itself cheaper and better than coal, oil, and natural gas. It isn’t renewable, but it’s clean and plentiful. Let’s continue to develop renewables, but let’s also be realistic. We have been presented with an option that will buy us the time we need for renewable technology to fully develop. Let’s use it.