Nuking the stigma around nuclear power

The phrase “nuclear power” often brings to mind images of mushroom clouds forming over the ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That being said, nuclear technology is still a green power source and the stigma around it must be dispelled. In the discourse of “green technology,” nuclear power is regularly disregarded in favor of solar and wind power. This is unfortunate, as, when operated and designed appropriately, nuclear power is no more dangerous than most other forms of energy. If energy sources are to become carbon neutral, nuclear power needs to be integrated into the power grid. 

Because nuclear power is plagued with negative connotations it may help to understand the mechanics of the fission reactions taking place. Fission itself occurs in three simple steps: first, a neutron is fired at a high energy nucleus, then the nucleus absorbs the neutron, destabilizing the nucleus. As a result, the nucleus splits to release energy and more neutrons to continue the chain reaction. In a reactor, water absorbs that released energy to create steam, which spins a turbine to generate electricity. In this case, the same components as other energy sources exist to generate electricity. They release some form of stored energy and use it to turn a turbine. 

A huge amount of energy is released from nuclear fission compared to solar and wind power. Based only on land use and power output, the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant easily outmatches the Desert Sunlight Solar Farm, producing more than 15 times more power annually than one of the largest solar farms in the world, using a third of the land. At the same time, newer nuclear technology and reactor designs are underway. Based on these new designs, spent nuclear fuel has proven to be more reusable than originally anticipated, resulting in less nuclear waste production. 

These newer reactor designs drastically outmatch former reactor designs. In fact, the new designs go so far as to address the problems of Chernobyl and Fukushima. In terms of the Fukushima Disaster, the plant was simply not designed to withstand a tsunami. Despite the operators’ best efforts, their cores suffered a meltdown from the high energy released in the fission process. Likewise, the reactor design at Chernobyl was inherently unstable on start-up and shutdown, to the degree that its design was rejected in every country aside from the Soviet Union. Current proposed reactor designs adopt automatic safety protocols in which fuel pebbles are allowed to cool in underground holding tanks.

Opponents of nuclear power will regularly point to the failures of the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima plants as examples as to why nuclear power is a bad idea. It is important to recognize, however, that, those reactors were designed more than 50 years ago. Today, safer and more efficient reactor designs exist and are continuing to be proposed. Nuclear power has proven to have a substantial power output compared to wind and solar. It is time to let go of the biases against nuclear power. The times are such that nuclear power needs to be recognized as a safe, reliable, carbon-neutral source of power.

 

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