Going Nuclear On The Fossil Fuel Industry

I love the place I live, in the heart of Texas. I get to experience all the metropolitan benefits and diverse geography yet I haven’t once been in the path of a twister, earthquake, or wildfire. That being said, I can’t say the same about everyone in this country; and I can’t deny that I haven’t been thoroughly introduced to the rising global temperatures. Ever since I can remember, the unforgivingly cold Barton Springs have been a fitting Oasis in the summertime, while cars without air conditioning were a dubious proposition and an overall grueling experience to ride in. As much as we might like to avoid thinking about it, temperatures have been rising consistently and extreme multi-state/multi-national weather events have become almost monthly phenomena. I can’t help but be worried about this city and my planet in general; but as a spoiled human, I would also like to keep my transportation, my central air, and high-speed connection. All things considered, I am hopeful in the idea of our society choosing safer and more sustainable energy sources.

The Fukushima disaster happened when I was in middle school, and it was particularly alarming to me because I had yet to become really familiar with the whole idea of nuclear power. It definitely caught my attention because of its dangerous and highly covered nature, but I generally wanted to know why nuclear power would be more widely used than something like wind or solar. This was a bit more relevant too because the BP oil spill had been pretty well discussed at my school and that company experienced a fair amount of scrutiny in popular culture the previous year. These two disasters seemed like two pages in the same book, and it made me want to find out what implications they had on the planet and their respective industries.

I spent a good amount of time reading about how these [nuclear] facilities work under ideal conditions, and what you could expect out of consistent and well-regulated usage of them. This was done in consideration of our huge dependency of natural gas and fossil fuels, and the purpose of satisfying a personal curiosity of what I thought was the better choice for the planet. Shifting global energy dependence towards more nuclear power usage may be one of the most effective and economical ways to reduce climate change.

As I previously alluded to, nuclear energy has some scary examples of what can and will go wrong under certain conditions. There is also a clear problem of waste and how we dispose of it. Not to mention our love for gas-powered cars in this society. I am certainly guilty of this, and I don’t think there’s anything metal I like more than my Mustang. According to the IHS, There are about 2 million people in the USA alone that work in the fossil fuel industry (Marn 1) and rely on its success to feed their family.

That number is expected to grow to nearly twice that number in less than 15 years (Ibid). Factors like this are the main reason people oppose a stronger dependence on nuclear energy, and they certainly have high value in the discussion. However, with the rise of new technologies such as electric cars and high-capacity batteries, and the ever more frequent natural disasters and temperature increases, it is now more important than ever to consider the impact that our natural dependencies have on our planet. We have to make the right decisions as a society if we wish to maintain the ability to even have a family regardless of the financial situation with respect to changing environmental conditions.

Our rapid technological expansion and population growth in the face of rising global temperatures places us in a critical moment. “It’s a line in the sand and what it says to our species is that this is the moment and we must act now,” said Debra Roberts, South African municipal leader of Environmental Planning and Climate Protection Department (Watts 1). Roberts is part of the IPCC (a UN committee on climate change), which released a frightening report this year stating that ‘We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe’. (ch. 3) Although we are developing better electric transportation and alternate commercial/industrial energy sources, we have produced a new record of carbon emissions globally this year according to the Global Carbon Project’s most recent assessment (ch. 1). Is nuclear energy really cleaner and safer than fossil fuels, and if so, why aren’t we more dependent on it?

The amount of waste that nuclear facilities create is certainly an issue. However, much of the preconceived notions we have about where most radioactive waste comes from, and the amount of waste in general produced by nuclear power is overblown in many cases. Additionally, hazardous materials are produced by every industry. The USA produces about 30% of the world’s electricity, but only 5% of hazardous materials in the USA are radioactive. Even after the fact, only 10% of those radioactive materials were produced in the process of nuclear power generation! (BTS Chapter 2).

Additionally, instead of waste getting more dangerous over time, nuclear waste has decaying properties. This still needs improvement, but it certainly isn’t as big of a problem in the future as many people make it sound. Due to the fact that fossil fuels are mainly found in crude form and must be heavily refined, this process creates a very high amount of waste products. Even in natural gas production, water is required in the amount of 3 to 6 million gallons per well, and it is pumped with thousands of gallons of undisclosed chemicals (‘Union of Concerned Scientists USA’). This creates millions of gallons of waste fluid every extraction. When fossil fuels are burned, more waste is generated in the form of ash, soot, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, etc. In that waste fluid, there can be as many as 300-500 known chemicals, of which over 75 of them cause cancer (ibid).

In my opinion, the 3 most important characteristics of an energy source are, output level (total capacity), efficiency (waste and space-related), and safety (for the planet and workers/users). World Nuclear aggregates and summarizes data from multiple sources including the OECD and IAEA, and their most recent estimation is that 11% of electricity globally is sourced from 450 reactors/nuclear power plants. In addition to this current capacity, about 150 more reactors are either under construction or being planned, which may increase the total capacity to almost 20% of global electricity. supply (pg. 1). The amount of growth potential seems too good to be true. Unlike our petroleum reserves, our nuclear energy reserves are steadily increasing every year. This eliminates the problem of ‘running out’ of fossil fuels so to speak. There is an important distinction to note, however, and that is the difference between ‘energy’ and ‘electricity’. Electricity is considered a ‘high form’ of energy, and heat is considered a ‘low form’. Most of the consumed energy was for heat and transportation, while only 18% of the world’s energy use came in the form of electricity in 2016 (Shell 4).

However, electricity can just as easily be converted into heat. When you break this all down, you see that the advantages for coal, natural gas, and fossil fuels seem to be our ability to rely on them for as much as 80% of our current global energy consumption (Global CCS Insitute 1). The argument for maximum output of fossil fuels is certainly stronger, but this is a dubious quality because it is an unsustainable resource, meaning our supplies are always becoming smaller, and the amount of pollution created is an inverse trend of our remaining supply. The best example of high output by a nuclear-dependent energy grid is in France. France currently relies on nuclear energy for 76% of its electricity generation (Palfreman 1). The growth and stability of nuclear energy demonstrated in France prove in some capacity the advantages or comparable output capabilities of nuclear energy. When you consider the recent advancements in electric transportation, it also seems reasonable that a very large percentage of transportation energy could be indirectly provided by nuclear power converted to electricity.

The last main distinctions I found are related to safety. It almost seems like events such as Chernobyl and Fukushima are synonymous with nuclear power. There is no doubt about the level of macabre destruction and lasting devastation caused by the meltdown in Chernobyl. There was a unilateral effort to make nuclear facilities safer after those meltdowns, and they at least provided information about what leads to those catastrophes. The geographic location and the foundation of the plant in Fukushima were susceptible to water damage during a Tsunami and there were not enough precautions taken in that regard (World Nuclear). There was no excuse for that, but amazingly, not a single person died from the event in Japan (ibid). 2 people died from the Earthquake itself, but nobody succumbed to the ensuing meltdown. The most revealing statistics are under ‘Deaths per kilowatt hour by energy source’. Coal accounts for 100,000 deaths per trillion kilowatt-hour produced.

This ranks number 1 above the number 2 and 3 spots that belong to oil and natural gas, respectively (Conca 1). Nuclear power is at the very bottom with 0.1 deaths per trillion kilowatt hour. When you add in Fukushima and Chernobyl, that number increases to 90 deaths (ibid). Even with 2 of the most significant nuclear disasters of all time, the ratio is 90.00 deaths to a whopping 100,000.00 deaths per trillion kilowatt-hours produced. If you go by this statistic, coal production is over 1,000 times more deadly than nuclear power production when taking the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters into account, and an incredible 1,000,000 times more deadly than nuclear power production when you don’t include the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters.

When you consider the fact that temperatures are the highest they have ever been on record and the amount of carbon in the atmosphere is also at an all-time high, one must assume that the excess usage of fossil fuels of carbon is highly causative in that regard. The only way we can remain sustainable as a species is by moving away from fossil fuels in favor of alternative energy sources. Out of all the alternative energy sources, nuclear may be the best choice in terms of growth potential, efficiency, and safety.