Nuclear power good

The Oct. 6 “Soap Box” section of the Telegraph contained a letter titled “Nuclear power bad,” highlighting a few main areas of concern. Rarely is something classifiable as  “bad” or “good,” but in matters of science and economics, facts are a good starting point. Here is a fact-based point of view that disagrees with the Oct. 6 letter, in much more than six sentences.

Nuclear critiques generally get camped into two categories: 1) safety and 2) environmental hazard.  

The safety of an energy source can be measured in the number of deaths caused by a) accidents and b) air pollution as a result of the energy source’s supply chain. Brown coal is the most deadly energy source, with 32.72 deaths per terawatt-hour of electricity produced. Coal is at 24.62 deaths per Tw and oil is 18.43. In contrast, wind is 0.04, solar is 0.02 and nuclear is 0.03 – all 99% less deadly than brown coal, separated by a negligible amount. Yes, the above stats do account for the notorious Fukushima and Chernobyl disasters.

Next, let’s consider the environmental hazard of each source. Once again, coal is the dirtiest, producing 820 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per gigawatt-hour. Wind? Four. Solar? Five. Nuclear? Three. Yes, when accounting for the total supply chain (e.g. each of these sources requires mining for coal/lithium/uranium), nuclear is currently the least greenhouse gas-intensive. Moreover, it is the least land-intensive by a long shot, requiring 2.2% of the land compared to solar and 2.5% as much land as wind.

What about nuclear waste? All nuclear waste generated by commercial nuclear since 1950, if piled up, would fit on a single football field, only piled 50 feet high. Moreover, there has never been an incident related to nuclear waste storage. In fact, spent nuclear fuel rods are regularly recycled for even more fuel production.

What about meltdowns? They’re rare, but not exactly within any realm of acceptable risk. We’ve seen the movies. Well, nuclear of today has about 50 years of innovation on Fukushima and Chernobyl. They operate at lower temperatures, produce less radioactive waste, even remain stable if power is lost, and can be deployed at much smaller scales than the gargantuan reactors we’re used to. Expanding nuclear energy today hardly resembles the manual and archaic reactors of the original nuclear power boom. In terms of safety and environmental hazard, nuclear is just as safe and environmentally impactful as its well-accepted compatriots, wind and solar.

What about nuclear weapon proliferation? A nuclear power plant does not contain the density of energy required to be construed into a weapon. Moving on.

Interestingly, the Oct. 6 letter worries that nuclear is an investment deterrent from wind and solar. As a result of solar investment, innovation and economies of scale, from 2009-19, the price of utility-scale solar decreased by 89%, even when normalized for subsidies. Wind has gone down 30% in the same period. These sources reached peak production for the U.S. last year, providing 13% of all energy. They’ve benefitted greatly from investment and will continue to be deployed for our energy future.

Meanwhile, coal, the dirtiest and most deadly source of energy, saw its first increase in production share since 2014. Why? As gas prices rose, energy producers looked for more affordable sources, particularly for baseload power, where solar and wind fall short due to a dearth in battery storage capacity. Unfortunately, misinformation has kept nuclear on the sidelines. In fact, the U.S.’s number of reactors has been declining (92 today vs. 104 in 2014), but nuclear power remains at about 20% of U.S. power production thanks to power plant capacity upgrades. Had the U.S. invested in nuclear, we could have had a clean energy response to the rise of gas prices, perhaps even displacing some of fossil fuel’s market share permanently.

Nuclear energy is as safe for humans and our environment as our currently preferred renewable alternatives, despite decades of misinformation and under investment. Our planet wouldn’t mind if we reinvested in nuclear at the scale we’ve supported other renewables. In the meantime, discourse amongst Telegraph readers is a healthy (dare I say, “good”) first step.

Stepping back, the energy transition our planet demands of us is daunting and complex. Navigating these issues as a nation, let alone a species of 7 billion, requires a collective effort to embrace the facts as a stable platform for cooperation.

We got this.

– Jamie Finney, Durango