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 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)?