Nuclear Energy: A Dangerous Energy Solution for Our Future?

In the 2012 Presidential election, one issue about energy was surprisingly supported by both Republicans and Democrats alike: the use of nuclear energy. As a matter of fact, in Obama’s 2011 State of the Union Speech he stated that by 2035 he hoped for 80% of the energy generated in the U.S. to be from “clean” energy sources, among them being wind, solar, natural gas, “clean coal,” and nuclear energy. In 2005, under George W. Bush’s Energy Policy Act, an $18.5 billion loan program was started to help with the construction of new reactor plants, and Obama followed that up with another loan program in 2012 to build new nuclear reactors, two of which are set to be built in Augusta, Georgia at Plant Vogtle.  (An interesting side story is that Obama’s home state of Illinois has the most nuclear reactors of any state in the U.S., but whether that has any affect on his support of nuclear energy is another story/debate.) In the past, because of its seemingly dangerous reputation, nuclear energy has served the role as the “odd man out” in the environmental debate concerning possible solutions to our future’s growing energy needs. Nevertheless, just last year, nuclear energy supplied over 21% of America’s electricity. In addition, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, the United States produces the most nuclear energy of any country in the world, producing approximately 769 billion kWh in 2012. To put this discrepancy in perspective, the country with the second highest nuclear production was France with about 405 billion kWh. Note, however, that France is much more dependent on nuclear energy for production as nearly 80% of their energy is supplied via nuclear energy. As of 2012, 31 U.S. states were home to the 61 total nuclear reactor plants (2 plants in Georgia). A major environmental benefit of nuclear energy is that it has no harmful carbon emissions like coal. Furthermore, it is not as “location dependent” as wind and solar panels which require a significant amount of land along with a constant supply of either wind or sun. So why is nuclear power not used even more than it is now if there are no harmful air emissions and if location is not a problem?

Nuclear Sites in US

 Source: CNN

Nuclear energy is generated by nuclear fission, a process in which the nuclei of atoms (primarily uranium) are split by shooting neutrons at them and producing essentially a chain reaction of neutrons splitting. Nuclear reactors then harness the heat that is produced from these reactions into a usable form of energy. There are additional positives associated with nuclear energy other than the ones mentioned previously. Nuclear energy is actually said to cost less per kilowatt than either wind, solar, or coal according to a report by the Nuclear Energy Institute. As a matter of fact, when comparing nuclear energy’s life cycle assessment to other energy sources’, the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory concluded, “Collectively, life-cycle assessment literature shows that nuclear power is similar to other renewables and much lower than fossil fuel in total life-cycle GHG emissions.” Land size is another positive as the average nuclear reactor facility takes up on average 300 acres as opposed to a typical wind farm that uses up around 165,000 acres while a solar photovoltaic park uses up about 54,000 acres, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute. Finally, the U.S. Energy Information Administration asserts that nuclear energy was the most efficient source of electricity for 2012, reaching an efficiency of 86%, followed by natural gas with an efficiency of 56%, coal with a 55% efficiency, wind power at a 31% efficiency, and finally solar power with a 27% efficiency.


Source: Ventyx Velocity Suite

The negative connotation with nuclear energy is undoubtedly safety in regards to potential explosions and radiation. According to a study by the World Nuclear Association, though, the Three Mile Island accident in the U.S. in 1979, the Chernobyl accident in the Ukraine in 1986, the Fukushima Accident of Japan of 2011 have been the only three reported widespread catastrophes  in “14,000 cumulative reactor-years of commercial operation in 32 countries.” Another major issue with nuclear energy revolves around how radioactive waste should be disposed of from the reactor plants since it is not biodegradable. This waste is hazardous to humans and the environment and requires adequate storage time in concrete steel-lined basins for it to be considered safe. The timeframe of storage depends upon if the waste is deemed high level or low level waste, and many studies have been completed to find better solutions to this issue. Another negative associated with nuclear energy is the continual need for uranium for the nuclear fission process. Currently, the U.S. imports around 80 to 90% of its uranium from other countries such as Russia and Canada as reported by the Energy Justice Network. Finally, the high initial cost of construction for these nuclear reactor plants (as evidence by all of the government funding that is needed for these reactors) puts a stranglehold on nuclear plants being constructed widespread across the U.S.

Source: World Nuclear Association

The major issue that continues to be debated upon even today with nuclear reactors is safety. Proponents of nuclear energy insist that nuclear reactors are still collectively safer than both coal and natural gas. Patrick Moore, who is both an ambassador of nuclear industry and an environmentalist, is persistent that nuclear energy is not dangerous, especially in comparison to other fuel types, stating, “In the United States, for example — 104 nuclear reactors operating now for 50 years — no member of the public has ever been harmed by them. You can’t say that about oil or gas or coal.” Still, the aftermath of nuclear plant disasters, especially one that just occurred two years ago in Japan, still remains with many environmentalist groups who are still dissatisfied with nuclear power plants. Jim Riccio, a nuclear policy analyst for Greenpeace USA, is critical of nuclear energy saying, “We’ve always believed that it’s an inherently dangerous technology that should be phased out and replaced…there are many cheaper, easier and less dangerous ways to generate electricity that don’t threaten our families, homes and communities.” In a recent poll conducted by Bisconti Research in February of 2013, around 68% of Americans are in support of nuclear energy. Maybe Americans do not think nuclear power plants are all that dangerous after all.

Source: Herve Lenain/Corbis

A few questions I want to ask you: How much do you know about nuclear energy? Do you have any connections with a nuclear plant facility (do you live near one or do you have family that works at one, etc.)? Do you think that safety would be an aspect that would keep nuclear energy from growing even further, or do you think the risks of nuclear energy are overblown because of the media? How would you compare nuclear energy against coal, renewables, and natural gas? In other words, in your opinion, which of these sources is the most viable for the future  for America (and more specifically the state of Georgia)?


The Policies (or Lack Thereof) of Hydraulic Fracturing

In recent years, hydraulic fracturing has been the source of much enthusiasm and heated debate because of the energy it ultimately provides and the environmental impacts that come along with it. The history of hydraulic fracturing can be traced back to the 1940s, but it did not become prominent until 2003 when large resource companies began exploring huge deposits (called plays) of a type of natural gas called shale gas.

Shale Play MapSource: Energy Information Administration

Natural gas is primarily composed of methane and burns cleaner than oil or coal.  Ultimately, it releases lower amounts of carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide. Sounds good, right? Cleaner fuel, less greenhouse gases- it’s what we want. However, the process of removing shale gas, hydraulic fracturing, may be doing more harm than good- because of policy reasons.

Fracking SiteSource: ProPublica

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a relatively simple process (see figure below). In recent years, the most controversial part of this process is the chemical mixing. Many are concerned that this water mixture may contaminate groundwater sources when it is injected into the ground, and rightly so. In this report by the US House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce Minority Staff, they state that “more than 2500” products were used in mixing, including “750 chemicals and other components”. However, recent studies (here, here, and here) have shown that it is not the chemicals that are contaminating groundwater but methane from gas leaks in the wells.

Fracking CycleSource: ProPublica

In 1947, The Safe Drinking Water Act (SWDA) was passed and the EPA’s Underground Injection Control (UIC) Program was created. UIC regulates injection wells to prevent contamination of underground drinking water sources. If there are already regulations in place to prevent such contamination, why do we have so much contamination from fracking? It is because fracking was specifically exempt from the EPA’s authority and regulations in 2005 when the Energy Policy Act was passed (except when diesel fuels are used). Why? The EPA conducted a study in 2004 to analyze the risk of hydraulic fracturing for coalbed methane production on drinking water sources. They “reported that the risk was small, except where diesel was used” and stated that “regulation was not needed”.

Today, we are starting to see how wrong they were. The 112th Congress introduced the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act (FRAC Act) in 2011 for the second time. The FRAC Act would repeal the exemption of fracking from the EPAct and would amend the term “underground injection” to include the liquid mixtures used specifically in hydraulic fracturing. The 2011 Act went nowhere, but there is still hope for groundwater everywhere. The FRAC Act was reintroduced for a third time on June 11, 2013.

A few questions: How familiar are you with fracking? Have you ever seen a fracking site? Did you know about the groundwater contamination issues from fracking, or do you know someone who has dealt with them personally? Do you use natural gas in your home or some area of your life? Do you think the EPA’s study for coalbed methane was capable of judging the impacts of fracking natural gas? What do you think about the FRAC Act?

Energy, Transportation

Back to the Future Cars: Zero Emissions Vehicles

It is surprising that most Americans are not aware that electric car technology has existed for decades. The “Sunraycer”, GM’s solar power electric car, won the World Solar Challenge Race in Australia in 1987.

In the early 1990’s, GM started producing the Impact electric concept car, which later became GM’s EV1. This car was available for consumer lease on the west coast for $400-$500/month from 1996-1999. Through deals with oil companies, GM stopped producing the EV1 when they acquired the Hummer brand in 2000 and subsequently crushed all the EV1’s so that other auto companies would not access the electric car technology.  The 2006 documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car” manifests the history and destruction of the EV1.   

GM's EV1 Crushed

GM’s crushed EV1s


In 1995, Toyota’s first prototype of the RAV4 EV won the Scandinavian Electric Car Rally. Toyota became a competitor in the electric car market when they began leasing first generation RAV4 EV in 1996. In 1997, the car became available for purchase.  Although sales and demand for the vehicle outweighed the production, Toyota halted production of the RAV4 EV in February 2003.


1996 RAV4 EV Charging

1996 RAV4 EV Charging

Understanding the benefits of electric cars and the technology, the California Air Resource Board (CARB) created the Zero Emissions Vehicles  (ZEV) program in 1990.  This program created a sales mandate for the automotive industry who wished to market vehicles in California. Automakers who wished to sell cars in California were required that two percent of vehicles for sale in 1998 and ten percent for sale in 2003 be zero emission vehicles. ZEVs could be hybrid, hydrogen cell powered or electric powered vehicles that met certain regulations and conditions. The program came as a solution to California’s air pollution and smog issues. Although issues with the oil and automotive companies caused CARB to loosen the requirements, the progress of the ZEV program has been slow but steady.

It has been 22 years since the ZEV program was created, but the program stands at the forefront of zero-emissions vehicles. Currently, ten other states are following California’s lead and demanding that the automotive industry begin marketing affordable ZEVs in their states within the next few years. These ten states happen to make up one third of the automotive industries new-car market. “If the new crop of emissions-free vehicles were limited to ZEV states, the total annual requirement by 2025 would be almost 800,000 zero-emissions vehicles.” Additionally, “economists for the state air board estimate that the technologies required by the ZEV mandate would add $1,900 to the price of the average new vehicle sold in the state in 2025. But consumers would earn that back with three years of fuel savings.”  (Article Link) If consumers want an affordable zero emissions vehicle market, then it is time to speak up!

Do you feel it is time for Americans to stop paying $3.50 per gallon at the pump to companies who continue to destroy alternative fuel technology in order to continue to make a profit? Do you want your state to follow California’s lead and demand that the automotive industry market affordable alternative fuel vehicles? Would you be more apt to purchase a ZEV if the price were only $1900 more than a gasoline powered vehicle?


Upgrading America’s Grid

A 2009 paper entitled “The vulnerabilities of the power-grid system: Renewable microgrids as an alternative source of energy” in the Journal of Business Continuity and Emergency Planning,  restated what has been known for quite some time-our current electrical grid has changed little since its inception and the shortage of fossil fuels threatens the security of hundreds of millions of people, their livelihoods, and investments. The paper specifically cited the vulnerability of our grid system in the case of natural disaster. Three years later, Hurricane Sandy transmuted this hypothetical scenario into a real challenge for thousands of local, state, and federal employees.  The disruption of fossil fuel supply chain and operations left residents of New York and New Jersey without any electrical fallback. The grid system is lacking, and too little is being done too slowly. In the three years since the publication of this work, more academic literature has been produced, and the talk of utility energy security has become a mainstay in mainstream media.  Why then has so little happened to change the energy decisions being made? The authors suggest the switch to more reliable, local, renewable-energy “microgrids” as a solution and specifically cite the control that large-scale utilities have over fossil-fuel supply chains as a hindrance to this direction of progress.


Source: US Department of Energy

More mainstream conversations about the need for change can be are ever present online at Forbes, Scientific American, and Bloomberg. The growing vulnerability of America’s electric system is becoming a looming and foreboding concern for CEOs and citizens alike.

Presently, the Energy Information Administration estimates that 37% of American electrical consumption is fueled by coal, in contrast to the 12% produced using all sources dubbed “renewable”. Of this 12%, more than half is the result of hydroelectric power, which is produced via the operation of dams whose infrastructures have changed little over the last 40 years.

Similarly, nuclear power provides 19% of America’s needs, via 104 reactors spread over 65 separate plants, but the issue of dealing with radioactive waste and the high initial costs involved in the construction of nuclear facilities make it seem less attractive,  as the production of wind and solar power generation continues to increase as manufacturing costs and retail prices fall. The construction of four nuclear reactors, two each at sites in Georgia and South Carolina, call into question these issues. Georgia Power, which is responsible for the construction of the new Plant Votgle Unit 3 and Unit 4 reactors, has slipped behind schedule by more than a year. The costs associated with this delay could be passed down to 2.4 million ratepayers from 155 of Georgia’s 159 counties, as a result of the state’s 1973 Territorial and Electric Services Act. The law ensure that all energy produced over 900 kW must be sold to utilities providers. This makes it very difficult for “microgrids” to emerge in states like Georgia and Arizona.

Southern company executive giving Plant Votgle tour
Photo by Matthew L. Wald, New York Times

The flip-side of cheaper renewable energy  production can be found across the European Union, where Chinese solar panels have been proven to be faulty after only a year in some cases. Whether or not such issues arise with the recent boost in US solar adoption, has yet to be determined, but, this varies from manufacturer to manufacturer.

Germany has been a trailblazer in the creation of renewable energy policy. Earlier this the summer, the nation’s legislative branch affirmed the expansion of high voltage direct current technology that would boost the efficiency with which the nation’s already diversified portfolio of renewable energy can be distributed. Think tanks estimate that this will allow German renewables to contribute roughly 135 GW of energy, up from 75 GW. The policy approach taken to accomplish this has also stripped a number of state-level courts from regulating the effects of such a system within their own jurisdictions. Rather, a national court in Leipzig would be the only place to formally present and resolve pertinent disputes.

What can the US do to secure utility-scale energy production? Why has the shift to renewable energy not been a priority investment for utilities providers? What place does the word ‘alternative’ hold  in discussions about renewable energy source, if any?

Alternative Energy, Transportation

Cutting Carbon Emissions from Transportation – An Integrated Approach

Did you know the transportation sector comprises 28% of our energy consumption in the Unites States? With 93% of this consumption fueled by petroleum? See here. In addition, the transportation sector produces the largest carbon emissions based upon energy consumption by sector. A paper was recently published on how the carbon emissions from transportation could be lowered by 71% by 2050 and they took an integrated approach. The approach uses a combination of biofuel and electricity. Individually, biofuels are limited by issues such as land availability and electric cars can be limited by market adoption rates and issues such as range anxiety. But each of them make sense in different locations for various reasons: some areas are more conducive for biofuel production and some areas have already developed infrastructure for electric cars. The complimentary combination of the two can provide a large benefit (71% reduction) in a fairly short time frame (2050).

The Department of Energy continues to invest a significant amount of money in biofuel development and research into biofuel development continues to be very active, including at the University of Georgia.

UGA Bioconversion Center

The US government is specifically challenging themselves, the public, and car makers through a program called EV Everywhere, one of the Clean Energy Grand Challenges. Announced by President Obama in March 2012, the initiative focuses on the U.S. becoming the first nation in the world to produce plug-in electric vehicles that are as affordable for the average American family as today’s gasoline-powered vehicles within the next 10 years. and according to a recent article, there have been increases in EV sales, although I would not say Tesla cars are affordable for the average family. But the Nissan Leaf certainly can be. Both federal and state incentives exist for the purchase of an EV and Nissan helps you find them.

While some consumers are still anxious about “range anxiety” (will I run out of charge before I get to my destination?), some car makers try to solve that with backup gasoline engines like the Chevy Volt and new BMW electric cars. And some  car shares (like this one in San Diego, photo below) use electric cars giving consumers an opportunity to try one out in the “real world” before they decide to make a purchase.

Electric Car Share in San Diego.
Photo: Jenna Jambeck


There are currently 12,344 alternative fueling stations in the USA. Have you been to an alternative fueling station? If so, how was it? Do you have any concerns with alternative fuels in vehicles or vehicles that run off of alternative fuels?

Electric fueling station for car share. San Diego, CA
Photo: Jenna Jambeck