RETHINKING NUCLEAR POWER | Amid Energy Concerns, Nuclear May Be A Solution

Artwork by Luke Brower ‘24

by Conor Burns ‘22

At the end of 2021, three of Germany’s six remaining nuclear power plants, which had powered millions of homes for nearly forty years, ceased operations. With the remaining three set to close down at the end of this year, Germany is on track to complete its 2011 nuclear phase-out plan, as the German populace (long-regarded as one of the most nuclear-skeptical in the western world) remains firm in its opposition to the construction of any new plants.

In November 2021, then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel echoed the public’s sentiment regarding nuclear energy, stating, “We in Germany believe—across party lines—that nuclear energy should not be classified as being as clean as wind and solar energy.” 

Conveniently, Markel neglected to mention that nuclear fission emits just as much carbon dioxide as wind, solar, and hydroelectric energy—namely, none—and that nuclear is far more reliable than these sources all while maintaining similar safety levels.

Over the course of the past several years, it has become abundantly clear that green energy renewables are not quite ready to take over from where coal, natural gas, and oil are leaving off; they are simply not reliable enough to steadily power large countries by themselves due to their reliance on weather and environmental factors. 

Additionally, the immense amount of resources necessary to produce solar, wind, and hydroelectric power often yields the counterintuitive result of using up land and natural resources and (especially with wind turbines) killing off the endangered species that “go green” initiatives are supposed to help.

Nuclear power plants, on the other hand, use a fraction of the resources and land footprint needed to produce renewables. In their 2015 Quadrennial Technology Review, the U.S. Department of Energy reported that solar energy required the most materials (16,447 tons of material per terawatt-hour of energy produced), followed by hydro (14,067), wind (10,260), and geothermal (5,261). 

Furthermore, nuclear power plants need only 920 tons of materials per terawatt-hour of energy produced—less than twenty percent of the materials needed for geothermal power plants, nuclear’s closest competitor.

In terms of land usage, nuclear power is indisputably more efficient than both solar and wind energy. A 1,000-megawatt capacity nuclear power facility needs about 1 square mile to operate. Solar energy farms, by contrast, are estimated to need 75 times the land of nuclear power to produce the same power level, while a single, massive wind turbine can provide at most 2.5 megawatts.

No energy source is perfect, however, and nuclear is cursed with some major drawbacks, chief among them the hazardous waste leftover from fission and the ever-present potential for a catastrophic nuclear meltdown. These two caveats are the main sources of concern regarding nuclear power, and this widespread unease has been fueled by highly-publicized disasters at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima.

Despite the meltdown and radiation dangers, nuclear power remains far safer than coal, natural gas, and oil. The relative danger levels of nuclear fuel versus fossil fuel is often analogized to the relative danger of driving versus flying. Many are under the perception that nuclear energy and flying are more dangerous—but in reality, it is both fossil fuels and driving that are far more harmful in their respective comparisons, as driving possesses a higher fatality rate than flying and fossil fuels lead to extreme environmental depletion relative to the adverse implications of nuclear energy. 

In fact, by some estimates, nuclear energy results in over 99% fewer deaths than fossil fuels, which is comparable to the death rate of other forms of carbon-free energy production.

President Joseph Biden has vowed to slash the United State’s carbon emissions in half by 2030, and nuclear energy seems like a potential solution for America’s environmental problems. 

However, nuclear energy capacity has stalled at about 100 gigawatts since 1990, and the last reactor built on United States soil was finished in 2016. For the United States to have a fighting chance at reaching this goal, billions of dollars need to be invested in revitalizing the nuclear energy sector to build new plants and retroactively improve existing ones.