By Haley Zaremba
While it seems to fly in the face of everything we believe and have been taught about nuclear power, it may actually be the safest form of power production that we have. Ironically, the immense potency of the power of splitting an atom is simultaneously what makes nuclear weapons so dangerous as well as what makes nuclear power so safe.
Despite high-profile nuclear disasters like Chernobyl in Ukraine (then the Soviet Union), Fukushima in Japan, and Three Mile Island in the United States, the deaths related to nuclear meltdowns are actually very few. In fact, climate scientists Pushker Kharecha and James Hanson discovered that overall, nuclear energy actually saves lives–their study found that up until now, nuclear power has already saved nearly two million lives that would have been lost to air pollution-related deaths from the contamination that would have been produced by other, more traditional, sources of energy.
Nuclear power is an incredibly clean form of energy thanks to its staggering efficiency. The uranium used to produce nuclear power has the ability to create a whopping one million times more heat than equal masses of fossil fuels or even gunpowder. Nuclear power has the valuable ability to create massive amounts of heat without creating fire, and therefore it produces no smoke. This means that it’s a much, much cleaner alternative as compared to fossil fuels, which cause seven million premature deaths per year (according to data provided by the World Health Organization) thanks to the massive amount of smoke produced by the industry.
While renewable resources like wind and solar are also much, much cleaner alternatives to the fossil fuel industry, with negligible levels of emissions, nuclear has a lot of benefits that renewables can’t compete with. One of these is that although nuclear plants create massive amounts of energy, they take up very little space thanks to their energy density. Even in places where the sun shines the majority of the time, like in California, a solar farm takes up 450 times more space than a nuclear plant to produce the same amount of energy.
On top of taking up far less space than renewable energy production, nuclear also requires a much, much smaller quantity of materials and therefore produces considerably less waste. Put simply, nuclear is far more efficient and energy-dense than either solar or wind. In fact, according to a fact sheet published by the Nuclear Energy Institute, the entire nuclear industry in the United States, one of the biggest energy-consuming cultures per capita in the world, produces just 2,000 metric tons of used nuclear fuel rods each year, or just a single soda can’s worth of waste per person served by nuclear energy per year.
Michael Shellenberger, president of independent research and policy organization Environmental Progress and a Time Magazine “Hero of the Environment,” sums the matter up simply: “the energy density of the fuel determines its environmental and health impacts.” In his think piece titled “Why Renewables Can’t Save the Planet” Shellenberger goes on to say, “It’s true that you can stand next to a solar panel without much harm while if you stand next to a nuclear reactor at full power you’ll die. But when it comes to generating power for billions of people, it turns out that producing solar and wind collectors, and spreading them over large areas, has vastly worse impacts on humans and wildlife alike.”
Despite the strong case for nuclear, however, it remains a hard sell in the United States thanks to a poor public image and overblown safety concerns as well as an adverse political climate. Even those politicians who are pushing for green energy reform are simultaneously pulling away from nuclear. With all of the solid evidence in its favor and an ever-increasing need to clean up our energy act, what more will it take for nuclear to become part of the United States’ energy future?