The consequences of nuclear energy usage

Leo Moskowitz, Staff Writer

What comes to mind when you think of nuclear power? Is it the Fukushima and Chernobyl disaster, the idea of mutually assured destruction, the use of atomic weaponry in Japan during World War II, or any other destructive scenario? You are not alone; a 2019 Gallup poll shows that 49% of people in America believe that nuclear power sources are unsafe. However, this common belief is not founded in rationality. These plants are found to be the second least deadly major energy production method, only overtaken by solar sources. On top of being safer, they are more efficient and require less management. So why do these power sources only produce about 20% of the nation’s energy, and why has this number not increased over the past few decades?

One of the most essential factors of energy production, or production of any goods, is safety. Nuclear energy tremendously surpasses fossil fuels in this area. Fossil fuels are estimated to cause anywhere from 1 million to 8 million deaths per year due to pollution inhalation alone. On the other hand, nuclear power plants are known to have killed only 32 people since the time since they were first created. The low number of deaths is because they release a negligible amount of radiation and almost no pollution. An average fossil fuel plant emits more radiation than an average nuclear power plant. The documented deaths resulting from nuclear power came from preventable disasters. For example, the tsunami that caused the Fukushima nuclear power plant to leak out a substantial amount of radioactive material could have been better prevented by using historical data and other modern methods, and the reactor should have been at higher ground with watertight machinery. After this disaster, many other first world countries updated the water resistance of their nuclear power plants. The Chernobyl disaster was due to reckless behavior by management, inadequately trained workers and reactors that are now considered outdated.

There is now the question of effectiveness. Nuclear power plants are generally very effective because they have the highest capacity factor out of any major energy production method, meaning that they produce energy more frequently than typical energy sources. Additionally, they require considerably less fuel and maintenance to operate than fossil fuel plants.

Besides irrational worries, there is significant opposition to nuclear power stemming from practical concerns. The most prominent and debilitating concern is the high cost and time required for construction compared to fossil fuel plants. Nuclear plants cost around $5,366 per kilowatt (kW) while the latter costs around $3,500 per kW.

“Typically a nuclear power plant will take over five years to construct whereas natural gas-fired plants are frequently built in about two years,” states the World Nuclear Association.

Some people say that the investment can be directed to more immediate solutions, like solar farms and wind turbines, which are arguably even safer than nuclear power plants. Though these have a low capacity factor and are not as reliable, they do require less management.

Another common opposition is that America relies too heavily on other countries including Russia, for the uranium needed to run these plants. Russia holds about half of all the world’s enriched uranium and supplied about 14% of America’s enriched uranium as of 2021. If America shifts to use primarily nuclear power, it would likely have to increase its national production which can pose several issues. Uranium miners are much more likely to develop diseases such as lung cancer, pneumoconiosis, and tuberculosis. The mining emits radioactive gas and dust which could cause health defects to surrounding areas, but there is limited research on whether it poses a notable danger to regular civilians. Despite the cons associated with the implementation of nuclear energy, the benefits are clearer and hold much more weight.

Unfortunately, the implementation of nuclear energy plants in America is slowing down every year. More plants are being shut down and not enough are being created to compete with other major energy sources. In 2012, there were 104 nuclear power plants in America. As of 2023 that number has been reduced to 92. Although they take a heavy startup investment, it’s worth it in the long run because of their efficiency and extremely minimal environmental impact. If America switched to primarily using nuclear energy, it would greatly reduce our CO2 emissions while making energy production even easier.