Nuclear could be the clean energy source the world needs (opinion)

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Editor’s note: Katie Tubb is senior policy analyst for energy and environmental issues at the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

The challenge of meeting global energy needs is colossal. Electricity demand continues to grow, with nearly a billion people still in the dark today. Access to affordable, reliable, and clean energy has far-reaching ramifications for economic opportunity, education, clean, reliable health care, safe homes, communication — things Americans can gladly take for granted.

There is a clean option that could meet this challenge: nuclear energy. While nuclear energy has encountered persistent public relations problems in the past, things seem to be changing – and rightly so.

Last year, the Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM), an annual gathering of energy ministers from 26 countries and the European Commission, for the first time included nuclear energy as an energy source. clean and launched an initiative to encourage other energy organizations to do the same. . According to CEM, nuclear power can promote “economic growth and efficient management of the environment”.

The CEM is not alone in reconsidering the role that nuclear energy could play. In fact, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in partnership with the Idaho National Lab and the University of Wisconsin, has gone so far as to say that nuclear energy is “essential” to expanding energy access and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

There are good reasons why these organizations have come to regard nuclear energy as “clean”.

In the United States, 19% of the electricity Americans use comes from 97 nuclear reactors, more than in any other country. There are 444 commercial nuclear reactors in operation worldwide, 54 more are under construction and 111 are planned, including in China, India and Russia. The gigawatts of electricity produced for millions of people by these reactors emitted no air pollutants.

Nuclear energy is also clean in the sense that it produces a lot of energy for its small physical footprint. A single nuclear reactor uses about 13 acres of land space per megawatt, compared to wind (71 acres), solar (44 acres) and hydro (315 acres). This includes land used for mining, transportation, transport and storage. In other words, a solar farm would need about 45 square miles of land to produce the same amount of electricity as an average nuclear power plant, and a wind farm would need about 260 square miles.

Wind and solar power have a much better reputation as clean energy sources and also have benefits such as zero-emission power. However, they both require favorable weather conditions and backup power to be online in case the weather does not cooperate. Nuclear reactors are online and produce electricity 93% of the time, compared to wind (37%) and solar (26%). And while most nuclear power plants in the United States are allowed to operate for 60 years, the lifespan of renewables is about half as long.

Like any energy resource, nuclear energy has its trade-offs. But even in these, the reality is far better than public perceptions of nuclear power.

The infamous accidents at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima are perhaps at the forefront of people’s concerns. It may be hard to believe, but no one died from radiation exposure from the last two. In the case of America’s worst nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in 1979, the actual radiation exposure for the 2 million people living closest to the reactor was less than a dental x-ray. For decades, state and federal agencies and private companies have tested agricultural, health and environmental factors, finding nothing of concern.

Less a commentary on nuclear technology than on an authoritarian government, the Chernobyl accident in 1986 was the result of a blatant and unethical Soviet experiment. The Chernobyl reactor also lacked important safety features, like containment domes, common to all US reactors. So far, the UN has confirmed 43 radiation deaths at Chernobyl, considered the worst nuclear accident in history.

Radiation itself is another common public concern, but it is not well understood. Radiation is part of our daily life. Flying on an airplane, eating bananas and carrots, sunbathing, having medical exams and simply living on planet Earth exposes a person to more radiation than living within 80 km of a nuclear power plant. Radiation is an inherent and, to some extent, necessary feature of life.

But fear has caused unnecessary environmental damage and costs. During a visit to Fukushima, Environmental Progress founder Michael Shellenberger defied the colossal efforts of the Japanese government to remove thousands of tons of “contaminated” topsoil. The response he received was shockingly candid: “All the scientists and radiation experts in the world who come here say the same thing. We know we don’t need to reduce radiation levels… We do it because people want it.

Other concerns include nuclear waste. There are 81,500 tons of nuclear waste from commercial reactors in the United States. That’s all the nuclear waste from every commercial reactor in the United States since 1957 – no more than a football field 10 meters deep. For reference, the International Renewable Energy Agency estimates that the United States will have between 170,000 and one million tons of waste from solar panels by 2030. While nuclear waste management policy has bogged down in the United States, it is a technically solvable challenge. The nuclear industry in Finland, for example, is showing the world how this can be done by building a deep geological repository to permanently isolate the waste from people and the environment.

The point is not that nuclear power is perfect, but that it has a compelling track record despite public perceptions. All energy resources have tradeoffs; there is no perfect energy resource. Nuclear energy presents unique challenges. But nuclear power also has incredible benefits that make it a choice worth considering as a clean energy option to improve our environment and make the world a better place.

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