Posted on July 19, 2010
Forty years ago, at the time of the first Earth Day, Americans became deeply worried about air and water pollution and a population explosion that threatened to overrun the planet’s resources. Nuclear power was seen as a savior to these environmental dilemmas. It could produce large amounts of low-cost, reliable clean energy. Unlike oil, nuclear power did not need to be hauled in leaking tankers from countries that didn’t like us. Unlike coal, it didn’t spew tons of pollution out of smokestacks.
Then Three Mile Island and Chernobyl happened. The world pulled back, fearful of nuclear technology—even though no one was hurt at Three Mile Island. In fact, no one has ever died as a result of a nuclear accident at an American commercial nuclear reactor or on a U.S. Navy ship powered by reactors. Chernobyl was the tragic result of a flawed technology never used in the United States. Still, the United States hasn’t licensed a new reactor since 1978.
Now the rest of the world is returning to nuclear energy. France is 80 percent nuclear and has the lowest per capita carbon emissions, and among the cheapest electricity costs, in Western Europe. Italy, Britain, Finland, and Eastern Europe all are exploring new reactors. Russia, India, China, and Japan are moving ahead. South Korea is selling reactors to the United Arab Emirates.
These countries realize that exploding populations demand large amounts of cheap, reliable electricity to help create jobs and lift people out of poverty. And nuclear power provides just that. The National Academy of Sciences in a 2009 report said that the cost of nuclear power is equal to or lower than natural gas, wind, solar, or coal with carbon capture. Reactors can operate for 80 years, while wind and solar last about 25 years. And nuclear reactors operate 90 percent of the time, while wind and solar are only available about a third of the time. (Remember: wind and solar power can’t be stored today in significant amounts.) Most people don’t want their lights and computers working only when the wind blows.
And nuclear plants occupy a fraction of the land required for wind or solar. For example, 20 percent of U.S. electricity comes from 104 nuclear reactors on about 100 square miles. Producing the same amount of power from wind would require covering an area the size of West Virginia with 183,000 50-story turbines as well as building 19,000 miles of new transmission lines through scenic areas and suburban backyards.
Nuclear fuel is available in the United States and is virtually unlimited. We don’t have to drill for it. We don’t have to mine it nearly as much as we do for coal. And thanks to technology, we can safely recycle “nuclear waste” and turn most of it into more fuel. After recycling, the French are able to store all of their final waste—from producing 80 percent of their electricity for 30 years—in one room in La Hague.
A more recently realized benefit of nuclear power is its ability to combat climate change. Nuclear power emits zero greenhouse gases. Today it produces 20 percent of our nation’s electricity but 70 percent of our carbon-free electricity. Wind and solar provide less than 2 percent of our electricity and 6 percent of our carbon-free electricity today.
The United States uses 25 percent of all the energy in the world. At a time when we need to produce large amounts of clean power at home, at a cost that will not chase jobs overseas looking for cheap energy, Americans can’t afford to ignore nuclear power.