Apocalyptic, blazing orange skies from fires in California that burned over 1 million acres. Cracked earth and a desperate exodus from West Africa in the wake of cyclical severe drought. Flattened buildings and flooding across the Gulf and East Coasts from devastating hurricanes. These haunting scenes of 2020’s natural disasters convey the extent to which such calamities have escalated in the past few decades, in direct correlation to staggering increases in pollutant emissions, the production of waste, and energy consumption.
Energy consumption is the most critical facet of climate change and humanity’s future. The US Energy Administration estimates that world energy consumption will increase by almost 50% between 2018 and 2050, driven primarily by a massive conversion of the destitute into the middle class, on a global scale. Humanity’s reduction and near elimination of poverty is a monumental feat, but translates into greater demand for energy: more appliances, bigger homes, consumption of more energy-demanding grade food, to name a few. This is the nature of socioeconomic ascension: consumption begets consumption, without any thought for the accumulation of environmentally detrimental externalities.
As climate change escalates from a concern into a crisis, nuclear energy is a disparagingly overlooked alternative.
Nuclear energy is monumentally more powerful than other mainstream sources of energy: “One uranium fuel pellet—about the size of a gummy bear—generates as much energy as one ton of coal, 149 gallons of oil or 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas. A single nuclear power reactor generates enough electricity on average to power 755,000 homes...more than enough to power a city the size of Philadelphia.” If those numbers don’t strike you, consider this: a single kilogram of 95% U-235 could power the entire United States - for almost three minutes.
Nuclear power plants are by far the most reliable source of energy, about 2.5 to 3.5 times more reliable than solar and wind, with a 92.3% capacity factor (days operating out of the year out of 365, based on need for maintenance) compared to between 25% for wind, and about 35% for solar plants. On top of being more reliable in functionality, nuclear energy provides magnitudes more electricity than other power sources, a whopping 2.8 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually in the US, compared to solar’s 62.5 GW: nuclear power produces 44,800 times more energy than solar, despite having a minute fraction of the facilities. Additionally, the high energy density of nuclear fuel makes it so that they only need to be refueled every 18-24 months, without any dependency on weather and transportation the way solar, wind, and natural gas are constrained.
Finally, nuclear energy produces no carbon emissions outside of the process of constructing the power plant. Although nuclear waste is produced, over 90% of it (by volume) is barely radioactive: the total amount of high-radioactivity waste from from a nuclear power plant each year is about 3 cubic meters, in exchange for providing 1,000-megawatts of energy to over a million people. For perspective, a coal plant of the same energy capacity produces about 300,000 tons of ash and 6 million tons of CO2 each year. The belief that nuclear waste is imminently dangerous for thousands or millions of years due to radioactive isotopes’ long half lives, is false. Although the waste is inherently radioactive for several years, it will have decayed to safe levels within a few hundred years, safely contained in specifically designed and isolated facilities. Even in the improbable event that a leak were to occur, the quantity of radioactive materials that would enter the environment would be almost 50 times smaller than the average background radiation, or the radiation present everywhere on the planet in natural environments and in our bodies.
Given all these objective assets, why hasn’t nuclear energy become the default of American energy? Insidious campaign finance networks with fossil fuel companies, the general negative stigma that nuclear energy inherited from the idea of nuclear weapons and the hyperbolizing of past accidents, and the relative cheapness of indubitably inferior alternatives such as wind and solar are what bar the way for massive environmental and social advancement through shifting to nuclear.
Oil and gas lobbyists have spent a minimum of sixty million dollars each year (since 1998) on securing Washington’s representatives in their pockets, recently peaking at $175.5 million in 2009 and spending $83.6 million in 2020 (so far). In contrast, the Nuclear Energy Institute, the sole nuclear advocate group with enough power to influence national-level politics, spent a grand total of $1.9 million lobbying in 2019, leaving smaller groups of nuclear advocates to pursue smaller subsidies at state and local levels to simply keep nuclear plants open, where they’re often overwhelmed by corresponding coalitions of gas trade groups and manufacturers who deem such subsidies as an unfair advantage. In fact, the opposite is true: the nuclear industry is only trying to get on par with other energy markets and bring its green and cost advantages to more people. Because of Three Mile Island, currently running nuclear plants are insufficient both in number and in technological efficiency -only utilizing between 4% and 0.4% of the potential energy in its uranium core, and almost all built over 35 years ago. Although there are entrepreneurs who have developed, and are working on, safer and more efficient nuclear energy technology, their funding is publicity as far below what it should be, proportional to their efforts to ensure a longer, cleaner future for America and potentially the world.
Nuclear energy has been wrongfully misrepresented as synonymous with catastrophe. The concept of nuclear power was introduced to Americans in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as a force of destruction of America’s enemies rather than energy to be harnessed for society; nuclear’s initial impression was already a more sinister one, with little public pressure to explore constructive uses for it. In recent media, we can take HBO’s series about Chernobyl as a prime example: while cinematically gripping, it’s undeniably riddled with falsehoods and exaggerations; most notably its depiction of radioactivity being contagious akin to a virus and able to be absorbed. In fact, once someone has changed into clean clothing and been washed, as the firefighters historically were, any radioactivity is internalized. Hospitals isolate radiation victims because radiation weakens an individual’s immune system, which makes them more vulnerable to other contagions, not because radiation can be passed on.
Chernobyl’s damage, while undeniable as a disastrous event, is not as dramatic as mass media paints it to be. Despite mainstream perceptions, there is no evidence that Chernobyl radiation caused any spikes in birth defects or cancer in nearby regions. UCLA physician Robert Gale was part of a team who observed and studied all the children born close to Chernobyl in the time period surrounding the accident, and they found that none of them had “any detectable abnormalities” at birth. The World Health Organization states that residents of Ukraine and Belarus (the two mainly affected countries” were “exposed to doses slightly above natural background radiation levels” and that any Chernoybl-related cancer deaths would only make up “about 0.6% of the cancer deaths expected in this population due to other causes.” There is no conclusive evidence that Chernobyl affected Europeans’ health beyond these immediate regions. As for wildlife, any significant effects at all are still disputed to this day by European experts, although there was increased radioactivity in forests and freshwater bodies.
How about a domestic example? Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania has become infamous as America’s version of Chernobyl (occuring in 1979), but in truth, there were no effects on human health or the environment. The environment was extensively studied over a dozen times by major research facilities and results find that there were no drastic changes or destruction in nature. An extensive study of virtually all the people- over 32,000 individuals- who lived within a five mile radius of the partial meltdown found that “radioactivity released during the nuclear accident at TMI does not appear to have caused an overall increase in cancer deaths among residents of that area over the follow-up period, 1979 to 1998.” The fears of nuclear energy are in actuality fears of nuclear weapons of mass destruction that weren’t given closure during the Cold War, and are playing out as a barrier to humanity’s progress and undermining our future.
Furthermore, the mortality rate for nuclear energy is the lowest out of all industries, by a wide margin: for coal, 15 workers die for every tWh (terawatt hour), solar kills 0.44, wind takes 0.15, and nuclear? 0.04. For all the lore about nuclear disaster, the math is simple: solar energy is 11 times more deadly than nuclear energy, and wind is almost 4 times more lethal.
This brings us to the blatant inferiority of solar and wind as energy sources, outside of their relative cheapness.
Let’s start with solar: the International Renewable Energy Agency estimated that there was about 250,000 metric tons of solar panel waste in the world at the end of 2016, and project this amount to skyrocket to be 78 million tons by 2050. This isn’t just any waste, either: solar panels are laden with toxic chemicals such as lead, arsenic, and cadmium that can’t be extracted for disposal without destroying the entire panel, leaving behind mountains of glass that can’t be recycled because they contain traces of these hazardous substances. Furthermore, outside of a single recycling requirement in the state of Washington for solar panels out of the entire country, all expired solar panels and all their tons of toxic chemicals are dumped into landfills each year, ruining wildlife and ecosystems.
Currently, recycling solar panels undeniably cost more than the recovered materials are worth. Jack Dini, a journalist who specializes in environmental and climate news, writes that “solar panels create 300 times more toxic waste per unit of energy than do nuclear power plants.” I previously detailed the relatively miniscule amounts of waste that nuclear energy would create, but Dini provides a directly damning visual: “If solar and nuclear produce the same amount of electricity over the next 25 years that nuclear produced in 2016, and the wastes are stacked on football fields, the nuclear waste would reach the height of the Leaning Tower of Pisa (53 meters), while the solar waste would reach the height of two Mt. Everests (16 kilometers).” This waste is produced at much higher frequencies, as well as volume, compared to nuclear power plants: solar panels have a lifespan of a mere 25 years, while nuclear power plants can operate for 40 to 80 years given adequate maintenance. Solar panels also demand large amounts of land: an average 3 acres per GWh/year, which is 75 times the amount of land that a nuclear facility producing the same amount of energy would need. A final obvious flaw is that sunlight isn’t always available, so the actual energy output of solar plants is much lower than their potential: the median output of a concentrated solar power (CSP) plant is only 38 % of its maximum, and the median output of photovoltaic (PV) panels has an even smaller ratio: only 20%. For all this waste and inefficiency, solar produces 72 billion kWh of energy each year, less than a tenth of nuclear energy’s 800 billion kWh.
On to wind. Right off the bat, wind power has a similar lack of dependability as solar, since it isn’t constant. Wind turbines also generate vast amounts of noise pollution, which the World Health Organization has deemed a health hazard, since chronic noise has been found to induce sleep deprivation, blurred vision, hearing loss and ear pain, tinnitus, memory loss, increases in blood pressure, and increased risk for cardiovascular disease. Specifically, the low frequency - “infrared” sound - that wind turbines generate has their own host of side effects: fatigue, apathy, and loss of concentration. Reports from Ontario, Canada to Europe to New Zealand confirm that the presence of wind turbines near human society lowers quality of life. In addition, wind turbines damage wildlife: collisions with a turbine’s blades kill between 140,000 to 500,000 birds each year in America, and as wind energy capacity increases by six times under the Department of Energy’s mandate, statistical projections predict an average death toll bird of 1.4 million birds each year. This is due to the design and height of the average wind turbine, as well as their locations, which both disregard local and migratory birds, disrupting their patterns of travel, foraging, and roosting to potentially undermine future populations. Beyond birds, entire habitats and ecosystems can be fractured by wind turbines, negatively impacting populations of wildlife, fish, and plants as well as providing potential pathways for invasive species to take over. The construction of wind turbines requires significant excavation into the ground, which demands the removal of surface plants and lots of soil. This causes soil erosion, leading to wastewater and oil from the construction site’s machinery of the turbine to infiltrate the ecosystem. Another negative similarity that solar and wind power share is high land use: for the typical 1,000 megawatt nuclear facility, same as the ratio used previously with solar, wind turbines would need 360 times more land area to produce the same amount of energy- and a single wind turbine only produces 1.7 megawatts, compared to a single nuclear facility producing 1,000 megawatts.26
Nuclear energy is our future. It is an unfathomable resource of energy that society has the capacity to harness, with minimal considerable attached costs of toxic waste, emissions, or environmental degradation that other “renewable” resources come with. Only the irrational, lazy loyalty to the status quo, fueled by self-serving lobbyists, sensationalist myths, and narrow-minded thrift keeps Americans barred from true economic and environmental progress. Providing nuclear initiatives with the technology and investment that the industry, and humanity as a whole, need, are major steps forward in turning the tide against our impending climate cataclysm.
22. Dini, J. W. Challenging Environmental Mythology: Wrestling Zeus. Raleigh: SciTech Pub., 2003
33. Kaoshan Dai, Anthony Bergot, Chao Liang, Wei-Ning Xiang, Zhenhua Huang, Environmental issues associated with wind energy – A review, Renewable Energy, Volume 75, 2015, Pages 911-921, ISSN 0960-1481,
*The author does not claim to represent all the opinions of all the members of the Postpartisan in this essay.