Is nuclear power still a viable alternative energy source?

Given the recent disaster in Japan, there has been a lot of questions about the applicability of nuclear power as an alternative energy source. Should it still remain a viable and needed option to reduce our impact on climate change?

Japan’s nuclear disaster in Fukushima (2011) is the third major nuclear power meltdown. The first was the only nuclear event in the US, Three Mile Island (1979) in Harrisburg, PA. The other was Chernobyl (1986). Chernobyl was the worst incident ever recorded, causing death to 56 people, and cancer exposure to thousands. Chernobyl and Fukushima were both rated as a Major Accident Level 7 (highest level possible) for nuclear events. There have been numerous events at various danger levels over the years, but despite these incidents, there have been relatively few deaths overall attributed to nuclear energy.

The abandoned city of Prypiat, Ukraine, following the Chernobyl disaster. The Chernobyl nuclear power plant is in the background.

Is nuclear better than coal? Coal mining has been linked to the deaths of thousands every year. In addition, coal-powered energy leads to greenhouse gas emissions, and climate change, while nuclear power does not release any greenhouse gases, so it is safer for the environment. In the political landscape of the US, should we ignore nuclear due to safety issues, when it may be the only energy source that could gain bi-partisan support?

Despite the incidents that have occurred, the industry safety standards continue to improve with every new plant, and with every new incident. Some of the incidents have occurred on older plant designs with flaws that do not exist on newer plants. The US also has rules and regulations in place for the use of nuclear power. According to the website of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the NRC “…was created as an independent agency by Congress in 1974 to enable the nation to safely use radioactive materials for beneficial civilian purposes while ensuring that people and the environment are protected…”

With other alternative energy options, it may require the need for strong wind, lots of sunlight, or access to waterways. With nuclear power, it can be produced anywhere in the world. In addition, it has a small physical footprint when compared to the amount of energy that it produces, so it provides very good efficiency for the land and materials used to construct it.

However, in addition to the risk of meltdown and exposure to thousands of people, nuclear carries other negative consequences. The time to construct, operate, and decommission a plant is very long, often over 100 years, which is a long time to have to maintain strict controls. Within that time frame, the plant is actually up and running for less than 50 years, so it doesn’t last very long.  Even if all the safety controls are in place, there is still the risk of terrorist attacks that could have severe consequences.

The last major issue concerns the actual energy source, uranium. Uranium is already a scarce material, and it will not be around for a long time. Even if uranium is available, after the cores have been used, there is no good option for disposal. Most energy companies either bury them deep in the ground, or keep them in huge pools at the power plant, due to their dangerous state. It is also a political risk, in that other countries could take the waste product and use it to build atomic weapons.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb clouds

Overall, nuclear energy is a superior alternative energy to our primary methods of electricity (coal-fired power plants), primarily because the disasters are rare, and it does not pollute the air or produce carbon dioxide emissions. However, there are other alternative energy sources that do not have as many negatives as nuclear, and similar or stronger positives. We should be pursuing and investing in solar, wind, tidal and geothermal in the future, not spending money trying to fix the risks associated with nuclear.