Could Nuclear Energy Be The Answer?

nuclear energy

With fossil fuels being one of the leading causes of rapid climate change, the country needs to turn to nuclear energy as an alternate power source, says former senior nuclear engineer, James Hopf, at a citizens climate lobby meeting.

Nuclear plants have been closing across the country and have exceeded all the solar power generated by the United States, he said.

“These plant closures that are already planned, everything we’ve done for solar in this country. All of it will be wiped out,” he said. Although some states have passed bills to replace the plants scheduled for closure with other forms of renewable energy such as wind and solar, Hopf says that this is not enough.

The time and money being put into replacing nuclear power with renewable energy is “basically like treading water” because that could have been used to replace fossil fuels instead, he said.

Those believing that climate change is “a threat to civilization” argue that nuclear power is a tool that is not being utilized in the fight against fossil fuels, he said. “My dad worked in electric and coal, so I’m here to better educate myself,” said Mary Ellen Joseph, first time member of a CCL meeting.

“As we build renewables, if we really care about climate change, we should use it to replace fossil fuel, not nuclear,” said Hopf.

Nuclear power has historically been controversial with even environmentalists skeptical of the power source because of tragedies linked to nuclear plants, the cost behind maintaining a plant, and the waste product created from nuclear energy.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, a nuclear and radiation accident is defined as “an event that has led to significant consequences to people, the environment or the facility. Examples include lethal effects to individuals, large radioactivity release to the environment, reactor core melt.”

The most notable nuclear disasters include the nuclear plant in Fukushima and the Chernobyl disaster. The destruction in Fukushima was because of a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami which resulted in the death of 2 people working at the plant and 6 people getting radiation exposure past the lifetime limit.

The disaster in Chernobyl was the inspiration for a movie and tv series. It is considered one of the worst nuclear disasters in history and left between 31 and 54 people dead. The actual number of casualties and those affected long-term is still up for debate. The United Nations believes for it to be 4,000 people, but others have estimated it to be up to 93,000.

Hopf said that even accounting for the most pessimistic number of casualties caused by nuclear disasters, coal still has a much higher body count and is more dangerous for those working around it. According to NPR, more than 100,000 people have died due to coal mining since the 1900s.

Some argue that the monetary cost is still too great for nuclear power and focusing time and money on other renewable energy is more efficient. Energy chair for the Sierra Club and Executive chair for the Rincon group, Russel Lowe, is trying to replace “bad” energy such as a corn-based ethanol and burning garbage into “good” energy like wind and solar.

The cost for creating and maintaining a nuclear plant is much higher than some would suggest and not as efficient in providing energy for that cost, Lowe said.

In a video Hopf presented, proponents of nuclear energy said that the cost of a nuclear plant is only so high because the United States is still using old technology and not keeping up with other countries.

In order to keep costs down, there needs to be continued development in energy storage container technology, said Hopf. The only way to completely transition over to “clean” energy is to find a balance between nuclear power and renewable energy to create a steady supply of power and minimize costs, he said. Startup companies are working on methods of energy storage and creating batteries of solar and wind power.

Public policy also heavily supports renewable energy through large subsidies and mandates but leaves out nuclear energy, he said. The nuclear issue is political, not technical, he said.

“There is a beauty in setting an even playing field and letting the market decide [what is the best source of energy] … let the best energy source win,” Hopf said.

Photo by Viktor Kiryanov on Unsplash