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Nuclear energy's controversial future - is it actually the best option for environment?

Despite the reservations of many, nuclear power could be a good thing for the environment.

May 5, 2021, 5:05 PM

Updated 1,143 days ago


Nuclear energy's controversial future - is it actually the best option for environment?
Nuclear energy seems to be going out of style around the Tri-state area.
From the Shoreham, Long Island nuclear plant that was scrapped before it could even get underway three decades ago, to the recent shutdown of Indian Point Energy Center in Westchester; we are now left with zero nuclear facilities in the tri-state area.
But could nuclear energy be the key to our future? Some say that its green energy benefits and statistically safe track-record make it a prime candidate for sustainable power for a long time to come.
For further insight on this topic, I sat down with Stony Brook chemistry Professor Roy Lacey, who has a research background in nuclear physics.
Recently, President Biden set some quite ambitious goals for fighting climate change. The most noteworthy were cutting carbon emissions in the U.S. in half by 2030, and reaching a net-zero carbon economy by 2050.
There is also a plan requiring electricity to be carbon-free by 2035. What some don't realize is that generating electricity also requires the burning of fossil fuels.
So, that begs the question: where is all of this clean energy going to come from?
Around 60% of our current energy comes from fossil fuels, and consumption is only growing.
Renewable energy sources such as wind and solar are expanding rapidly, and hydroelectricity has become a big power producer. But despite these positives combined, we would still fall well short of the energy needed to meet the current administration's goals.
These realities have led many environmentalists to reconsider their views on nuclear power.
The biggest and most obvious obstacle to nuclear power is the safety aspect. This is the main reason that Indian Point was decommissioned, as many feared the consequences of an accident in our densely-populated region.
So just how unsafe is nuclear power? Well, according to the World Nuclear Association, not very.
Outside of the three noteworthy incidents of Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima, there have no significant global accidents. Mind you, this is over the 60-year history of the nuclear power generation, and that includes more than 18,500 cumulative reactor-years across 36 countries.
Of those three disasters, Chernobyl (1986) was the only one that catastrophic health and environmental consequences, and was the result of gross incompetence on several levels. The HBO docuseries 'Chrnobyl', which received critical acclaim, outlines the steps that led to the worst nuclear incident in history.
Fukushima (2011) was caused not by human negligence, but rather by a large earthquake and resulting tsunami that disabled the power supply and cooling of three reactors and causing a meltdown. There was release of radioactive materials into the air and water, but not to the level of Chernobyl. And while there were no deaths of cases of radiation sickness from the event, over 100,000 people were evacuated as a preventative measure.
Three Mile Island (1979) was caused by a malfunction in the cooling system. One of the nuclear reactors was destroyed, and some radioactive gas was released into the air, but not enough to cause any health effects to local residents. No injuries or adverse health effects stemmed from this event.
Presently, nuclear power is responsible for about 10% of the world's electricity, which is markedly lower than it used to be. Some of the nuclear incidents from above started a declining trend in nuclear fervor. Many countries began closing reactors in the wake of Fukushima.
But scientists are continuing to come up with ways to rejuvenate faith in nuclear energy. One of the biggest is replacing the most common process of nuclear fission - the splitting of atoms to create energy - with nuclear fusion, which combines atoms together and produces energy. Not only is this a much safer method, but it can theoretically produce more energy.
The only issue here is that this process is much more difficult to sustain.
Another negative of nuclear energy that detractors bring up is how much money it costs and how long it takes to build nuclear reactors, which could offset any environmental benefits.
But nuclear power itself has many benefits. Plants take up less space than solar and wind farms, can produce power around the clock no matter the weather, and perhaps the biggest one of all: nuclear power has a very small carbon footprint.
Considering that the overwhelming majority of nuclear pants were built over 20 years ago, it's reasonable to think that newer power plants could be more efficient, produce even more energy and, above all, be safer.
If that last part were to become a reality, it could lead to many rethinking their stance on nuclear energy.

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