Let’s face it: If you’re an American, there’s some small part of you that longs for that very special period in American history, the 1950s. The economy was strong, major infrastructure projects were still feasible, gas was cheap, the suburbs hadn’t become all-pervasive and lifeless yet, you could still take the train to different places, and life was pretty great! The latest advances in technology weren’t dumb phone applications or a LEED-Platinum certified shed for your solar-powered lawnmower. They were rockets that sent people to space and machines that promised to give us nearly free energy. We were on the cusp of an entirely new era of peace brought on by technology, with flying cars, cities on the moon and automatic farming. I’d like to see an app do that.
When I refer to “machines that promised to give us nearly free energy,” I refer to, of course, nuclear power.
“Too cheap to meter!” was the mantra of the time. Ford designed an atomic car. The U.S. Air Force experimented with nuclear airplanes. Nuclear power promised us a bright and beautiful future of nearly limitless, extremely cheap and clean energy. Hundreds of nuclear power plants were built around the country and continued to be built until the 1970s. Then, of course, the accidents happened.
You’ve heard about them: Three Mile Island, Fukushima Daiichi and Chernobyl were all caused by cooling system failures. These were serious incidents, especially Chernobyl, but what really catalyzed the anti-nuclear movement in the U.S. was Three Mile Island.
The Three Mile Island incident was an unmitigated disaster: there were a whopping zero deaths and injuries, and it released an incredible 13 Curies of radioactive material, giving the surrounding community an average radiation dosage of 1.4 millirem, which is around the amount of radiation you’d receive from half a chest X-ray, eating 140 bananas or living in the city of Denver (or some similar high-altitude location) for seven days. The accident was so bad that the plant had to be taken out of operation until 1985, after which reactor 1 was restarted and continues to operate.
This tragedy shook the American public, which loathes bananas and vacations to Denver, and the anti-nuclear movement took root. No new reactors have been built in the U.S. since the Three Mile Island accident for a combination of environmental and safety reasons.
This is wrong, this is bad for the economy, and this is bad for the environment. Nuclear power is currently the safest form of power available, which can be proven by looking at the very real metric of “deaths per thousand terawatt hours,” or how many people have been killed for every trillion kilowatt-hours of power generated by different fuel sources.
Forbes magazine came up with these numbers:
Energy Source Mortality Rate (deaths/trillion kWhr)
Natural Gas 4,000
Solar (rooftop) 440
I hate to hear the argument that “nuclear power can be made safe” because it is already extremely safe; the statistics show that much right off. Even solar power and wind power have killed more people per kilowatt-hour, mostly from people falling off roofs while installing panels or being killed in the cramped turbine room of a windmill. Meanwhile, even accounting for the worst-case scenario of cancer deaths from Chernobyl, nuclear power still comes out as the safest form of energy available.
Despite this, it can easily be made safer still! Most nuclear reactors in operation today are very old designs that require active cooling. Upon a loss-of-coolant accident (such as in Chernobyl, Fukushima or Three Mile Island), they tend to spiral into uncontrolled chain reactions and melt down. They also operate under extremely high pressure, which is inherently dangerous. In layman’s terms, these older reactors can blow up violently, and they rely on an outside source of constantly flowing water to prevent them from doing so. Reactors are contained in high-strength pressure vessels, capable of withstanding thousands of pounds per square inch of pressure, to contain boiling coolant water in the reactor. This is what causes violent explosions during nuclear disasters. It’s not a nuclear explosion; it’s a steam explosion that happens to occur in a vessel containing nuclear material. Enormous, complicated, multiple fail-safe cooling systems are required to prevent the reactor from getting too hot and damaging the vessel, and if these cooling systems fail, the reactor tends to go out of control. We saw this at Fukushima two years ago. Even after the reactors had been shut down, they continued to increase in temperature until the containment vessels failed catastrophically.
So what if we could build a nuclear reactor that operates at atmospheric pressure? Even in the worst cooling failure, there would be no risk of explosion. New Generation IV reactors currently under development will be able to do just that, thereby negating any need for multiple redundant cooling systems or pressure vessels or any of the very expensive and complicated things required for older nuclear power stations. Toshiba has even begun marketing a reactor that could fit in your own backyard!
Waste products, of course, are still a significant issue. There are concerns not only about it contaminating the environment but also about waste being seized by terrorist organizations and used in “dirty bombs.” We cannot, as of yet, completely eliminate the waste products associated with nuclear power, but the Generation IV specifications claim that they will produce 10 times less waste, and this waste will contain none of the so-called “long-lived” fission products like technetium-99 and iodine-129 with half-lives of hundreds of thousands of years, resulting in waste that stops being radioactive after decades rather than hundreds of millennia.
Let’s face it: Most existing reactors are inherently unsafe, and many have been in operation far longer than they were designed to run. Fukushima Daiichi was a pre-Chernobyl design, for instance. Older plants ought to be decommissioned and upgraded to newer, safer, more powerful reactor designs. Germany has already recognized this but has overreacted and elected to terminate its nuclear program completely, ostensibly to replace it with renewable energy in the form of solar and wind. Unfortunately, the provision of baseload power on windless and cloudy days will still be required, so much of the capacity lost by shutting down nuclear plants will likely be replaced by coal and natural gas plants.
If we want to get serious about clean energy and live our lives without having to worry about energy conservation, or whether the lights will stay on when it’s cloudy, or having millions of acres of potentially arable land turned over to solar or wind energy production, we have to consider the nuclear option. It’s clean, it’s safe, it’s cheap, and it’s our best bet for a safe and sustainable future.
Justin Roczniak is the op-ed editor of the Triangle. He can be contacted at [email protected].