7 Ways The Grand Solution We’re All Looking For Could Actually Be In Nuclear Power

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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Nuclear power had a great, and shockingly bipartisan, week.

The Department of Energy announced major new investment in advanced nuclear reactors Friday shortly after the Democratic, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced his state would support existing nuclear reactors to help slow global warming. Meanwhile, Republicans rolled back state regulations against nuclear plants and boosted Congressional support for cutting-edge nuclear research earlier this week, in the face of intense opposition from environmentalists.

Environmental groups have always heavily lobbied against nuclear power, but it seems doubtful they’ll be able to continue increasing the cost of nuclear plants and creating artificial delays in construction. Organizations like The Sierra Club, still oppose nuclear energy as they believe it leads to “energy over-use and unnecessary economic growth,” but new pro-nuclear environmental groups, like the Breakthrough Institute, are growing in statute.

Despite environmental opposition, most scientists and engineers agree that nuclear power is actually great for the environment.

“Among the environmentalist community, there has traditionally been a lack of recognition of nuclear energy plants’ contribution to reducing carbon emissions,” Evan Bayh, a former Democratic Senator from Indiana and current co-chair of Nuclear Matters, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “[T]he good news is that this has taken a significant turn and we’re seeing growing recognition from all stakeholders that if you want to ensure a cleaner energy future, nuclear must be a part of the mix.”

Nuclear power has enormous environmental benefits, so here are the top 7 reasons nuclear power is actually really good for the planet.

1: Nuclear Is The Largest Electricity Source That Doesn’t Emit Carbon Dioxide

“Nuclear energy is good for the environment because it is the largest source of electricity that doesn’t emit greenhouse gases. In fact, nuclear accounts for 63 percent of the electricity from zero-carbon sources,” Mitchell Singer of the Nuclear Energy Institute told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

A single nuclear reactor can prevent 3.1 million tons of carbon-dioxide emissions annually.  The Economist calls nuclear energy “the most cost-effective zero-emission technology.” The Wall Street Journal agrees that “[if] the world intends to address the threat of global warming and still satisfy its growing appetite for electricity, it needs an ambitious expansion of nuclear power.”

2: American Reactors Are Incredibly Safe

“There is also a common misperception that nuclear is not safe,” Evan Bayh, a former Democratic Senator from Indiana and current co-chair of Nuclear Matters, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “To the contrary, U.S. nuclear plants are held to exacting standards of safety – they are operated by highly skilled and trained workers and are designed with multiple layers of redundant back-up safety systems.”

Nuclear power, even with the two high-profile nuclear accidents, is statistically the safest way of generating electricity. Coal power in China kills 280,000 people for every trillion kilowatt hours it produces. Rooftop solar kills 440 for the same amount of electricity. Nuclear energy only kills 90, by this measure, including deaths from disasters.

Deaths from nuclear power, are very rare relative to deaths from industrial accidents, mining accidents, or pollution.

Even before the Chernobyl meltdown in the Soviet Union, US reactors had already implemented safety procedures that would prevent a similar event from happening here. Before the Fukushima disaster occurred, American reactors had already implemented safety procedures that would prevent something similar from happening. The reactor at Fukushima could not be cooled without electrical power, but American reactors elevate a reservoir of water to cool the reactor without back-up power in an emergency.

New nuclear reactor designs are much safer and emit less radiation than the coal plants they replace.

3: Attempts To Kill Nuclear Power Almost Certainly Increase Carbon Dioxide Emissions 

Germany’s government decided to abandon nuclear energy after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan galvanized opposition. Recent attempts by Germany to increase use of solar and wind power while decreasing nuclear power actually caused carbon dioxide emissions to increase. This is because they had to rely more heavily on coal plants to cover the power demand in the evenings when “green” energy doesn’t produce much power.

Nuclear power’s decline in Germany created an opening for coal power. Coal now provides 44 percent of  Germany’s power, despite the fact that coal ash is actually more radioactive than nuclear waste. This shift caused Germany’s CO2 emissions to actually rise by 28 million tons  each year after the country’s nuclear policy changed.

In 2000, nuclear power made up 29.5 percent of Germany’s energy. In 2015, the share dropped down to 17 percent, and by 2022 the country intends to have every one of its nuclear plants shut down.

The cost of replacing Germany’s nuclear power with wind and solar is estimated by the government to be over a trillion euros, without any assurances that the program will actually reduce emissions.

4: Nuclear Power Is Ready To Go And Can Use The Existing Power Grid

“Today, it’s beyond dispute that if we are to have any hope of reducing carbon dioxide emissions, we will have to utilize nuclear energy,” Robert Bryce of the Manhattan Institute told The DCNF. “And yet, the Green [activist on the] Left — and in particular, groups like Greenpeace, Sierra Club, and — continue to deny this fact. Those groups are the real ‘deniers.'”

In order for the power grid to function, demand for energy must exactly match supply. Power demand is relatively predictable, and nuclear plants can adjust output accordingly. Solar and wind power, however, cannot easily adjust output.

The three power grids that supply the United States with energy are massive and expensive pieces of infrastructure. The power grids are valued at trillions of dollars and can’t be replaced in a timely manner. It takes more than a year to manufacture a new transformer, and transformers aren’t interchangeable, as each one must be individually built specifically for its location. At a time when the U.S. government is more than $18 trillion in debt, building power grids that can handle solar and wind may not be feasible.

5: High Energy Costs Disproportionately Hurt The Poor And Ethnic Minorities

Electricity from new “green” energy is nearly four times as expensive as electricity from existing nuclear power plants, according to analysis from the Institute for Energy Research. The high costs of “green” energy are passed onto ordinary rate-payers, which has triggered complaints that poor households are subsidizing the affluent.

The poor and ethnic minorities tend to spend a higher proportion of their incomes on “basic needs” like groceries, power bills, clothing, housing and gasoline. As essential goods like electricity become more expensive, the cost of producing goods and services that use electricity increases, effectively raising the price of almost everything. Consumers, not industries, ultimately pay for the increase in costs.

Increases in the price of electricity harm ethnic minorities far more than they harm the average household, according to a study by the Pacific Research Institute. Further EPA regulation is expected to cause the average annual electricity bill to rise from 2.9 percent to 3.8 percent of annual income for the average household. For the average African-American household, annual spending on electricity will rise from 4.5 percent to 5.8 percent of household income. Lower-income black communities will bear an even larger burden and could spend up to 26 percent of their household income on electricity.

6: Nuclear Waste Can Be Recycled

Most nations that use nuclear power carry out some measure of spent fuel reprocessing, which involves separating the useful atomic nuclei from waste. The United States does not currently reprocess due to the Carter administration’s fears over potential plutonium proliferation, which could be used to build more nuclear weapons. Thus, America is the only nation with a massive spent fuel problem.

Additionally, making nuclear waste safe can be done these days with a particle accelerator.

“Production of neutron radiation from particle accelerators is a known and proven technology,” Doctor Jeffrey Eldred, a particle accelerator physicist who works at Fermilab, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “Since 2006, the US completed a $1 billion research facility known as the Spallation Neutron Source (SNS) in Oak Ridge Tennessee, that accelerates protons to high energies (1 GeV) and sends the 1 MW beam into a liquid-Hg target for efficient neutron production… The energy consumed in operating the particle accelerator to destroy nuclear waste is far less than the nuclear energy produced while creating the nuclear waste products.”

The European Spallation Source, which should be completed in 2019, has proposed a demonstration experiment which could render nuclear waste relatively  harmless.

“The greater challenge that remains is to educate the public on new reactors and regain their trust in the institutions that shape our lives,” Eldred continued while describing new reactor designs that could eliminate problems with nuclear waste altogether.

7: Not All Environmentalists Are Against Nuclear Power, And Most Scientists Are For It

Environmental think tanks, like the Breakthrough Institute, believe that nuclear power is imperative to both economic growth and solving global warming. The Breakthrough Institute believes that “anyone truly concerned about climate change will need to reconsider their opposition to nuclear. It is the best chance we have to make big reductions in carbon emissions quickly.”

Nuclear plants are more environmentally friendly in many respects than wind or solar plants as they take up far less space and don’t require new development.

Opinion polls show that the more people know about nuclear power, the more likely they are to support it. For example, a majority of scientists support nuclear power, as opposed to a majority of the general population.

Former NASA climatologist James Hansen, Kerry Emanuel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tom Wigley of the University of Adelaide in Australia, and Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution signed an open letter in 2013 that said “there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power” because “green” energy sources like wind and solar “cannot scale up fast enough to deliver cheap and reliable power at the scale the global economy requires.”

If Democrats and environmentalists continue to attack Republicans for ignoring the opinions of scientists on global warming, they should be careful not to dismiss the solution those scientists recommend.

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