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The Energy Future Belongs to Nuclear

It remains the only proven technology capable of serving the energy needs of de-carbonized modern society.

· 6 min read
The Energy Future Belongs to Nuclear

In 2021, concerns about greenhouse gases and climate change prompted the Biden administration to call for a carbon-emission-free power sector by 2035. However, achieving that objective by transitioning from fossil-fuel energy to “green energy” is not only technically impractical and unrealistic, it is also not quite as “green” as enthusiasts would have us believe.

Technical considerations

The energy demands of an industrialized society require an abundant source of uninterrupted power. However, the “green power” (primarily wind and solar) intended to replace fossil fuels is, by its nature, intermittent and subject to fluctuations in the weather. While that limitation could be eased somewhat with the augmentation of back-up batteries, the land-consumption requirements for a wholesale shift to renewables would be prohibitive.

Unlike fossil-fuel energy and nuclear power, the energy from solar and wind is widely dispersed, requiring large tracts of land to “collect and harness” it for power generation. Fossil fuels can produce 500 to 10,000 watts per square meter and nuclear can produce 500 to 1,000 watts per square meter. Solar power, on the other hand, can only produce five to 20 watts per square meter. Wind can produce just one or two.

The current installed power from all energy sources in the US is 1.2 terawatts (one million megawatts). Converting all that energy to wind and solar (assuming an average land use requirement of 10 watts per square meter), would require a tract of land larger than the size of Texas and California combined, making the comprehensive transition to green infeasible. So, if fossil fuels are removed from the commercial power mix, then nuclear is the only viable source of power available to meet the energy needs of an industrialized nation.

Environmental considerations

“Green energy” is often described as “clean energy” because it comes from natural sources (wind, sun, and water) that produce no environmental pollutants or greenhouse gases. But that is only true if analysis of the process is limited to green energy production—that is, the actual conversion of wind, solar, and hydro energy into electricity.

However, when the total life cycle of mining, manufacturing, production, and disposal is considered, green energy is revealed to be anything but “clean.” As an AP investigation recently revealed:

The birds no longer sing, and the herbs no longer grow. The fish no longer swim in rivers that have turned a murky brown … cows are sometimes found dead. … Water is no longer drinkable, and endangered species such as tigers, pangolins and red pandas have fled the area.

That’s not a description of the Flint River region in Michigan, the Fukushima environs in Japan, the Love Canal community in upstate New York, nor of the dystopian wasteland in an apocalyptic novel. It’s the condition of northern Myanmar on China’s south-west border—the result of the unrestrained mining of rare earth minerals. These materials are essential to the manufacture of green energy products like electric vehicles and wind turbines.

Years of unregulated mining have turned whole regions in Myanmar and other parts of the undeveloped world into “sacrifice zones”—areas where the health and welfare of local residents are sacrificed for the “greater good,” which, in this instance, is global de-carbonization. As the push for green energy continues, the demand for these minerals will keep pace, along with environmental hazards not limited to mining.

Irrespective of the energy source, the machinery (e.g., batteries, wind turbines, solar panels, dams) needed to convert it into useable power are manufactured from materials that must be not only mined, but also processed and ultimately disposed of. According to a 2020 paper produced by the Manhattan Institute, “compared with hydrocarbons, green machines entail, on average, a 10-fold increase in the quantities of materials extracted and processed to produce the same amount of energy.” For example:

A single electric car battery weighing 1,000 pounds requires extracting and processing some 500,000 pounds of materials. Averaged over a battery’s life, each mile of driving an electric car ‘consumes’ five pounds of earth. Using an internal combustion engine consumes about 0.2 pounds of liquids per mile.

Eventually, all that material becomes waste requiring disposal:

By 2050, with current plans, the quantity of worn-out solar panels—much of it nonrecyclable—will constitute double the tonnage of all today’s global plastic waste, along with over 3 million tons per year of unrecyclable plastics from worn-out wind turbine blades. By 2030, more than 10 million tons per year of batteries will become garbage.

Of course, a 10-fold increase in green energy materials will require a commensurate increase in the fossil fuels (primarily, diesel) needed for their extraction, processing, and disposal by excavators, trucks, and other heavy equipment. In other words, green energy is anything but “carbon-neutral.”

The energy present

Added to the technical and environmental problems of green energy, is the awkward fact that the green energy market is leveraged by China. China not only manufactures “more than two-thirds (2/3rds) of the world’s solar panels and one-half of wind turbines,” but it also “controls 90% of the battery industry’s cobalt supply-chain.” Thus, any expansion of the green energy grid increases US dependence on a country that is not particularly interested in its wellbeing.

Furthermore, China’s green energy products are produced primarily from fossil fuels. Nearly all the benefits of an industrialized society: modern medicine, scientific progress, technological advances, and the manufacturing of consumer goods—including those needed for green energy—depend on the delivery of reliable, large-scale, baseline power that is beyond the capability of green energy technology.

The only demonstrated technology capable of accomplishing that task, free of greenhouse emissions, is nuclear—the most essential form of energy in the cosmos. Nuclear energy powers the sun which generates solar radiation that drives photosynthesis, energizes solar cells, and creates pressure differentials that produce winds harnessed by wind turbines. Contrary to popular belief, nuclear is the most natural of all natural energy sources.

Today, nuclear energy is used to run submarines and spacecraft, and to diagnose and treat medical conditions. On a larger scale, it is an integral part of the commercial power industry, delivering energy for residential, municipal, and industrial purposes. Since the first reactors were built in the 1950s, commercial nuclear power has amassed more than 18,000 reactor-years of operational experience, producing electricity in over 30 countries.

The energy future

Commercial reactor fuel comes from uranium ore mined from the earth. Under current projections, the amount of uranium extractable by mining is sufficient to last hundreds of years. However, if extraction from seawater is made economically feasible, the supply is estimated to last tens of thousands of years, qualifying nuclear power as sustainable.

Nuclear fuel can also be reprocessed to recover unused uranium, increasing fuel efficiency and reducing nuclear waste. For example, recovered uranium could be used in a fast breeder reactor to produce as much, or more, fuel than it consumes by transmuting fertile uranium into fissionable radioisotopes that can be reprocessed and recycled for power generation, making nuclear power renewable, as well. So far, only Russia is doing this on a large scale, with China and India not far behind.

The dismissal of nuclear power as a plausible means of achieving de-carbonization has not resulted from patient consideration of the scientific and technical merits of the case for nuclear, but in spite of those merits. Regrettably, I have watched ideology and emotivism trump science on numerous occasions throughout my 30-year career.

One such occasion occurred during a public hearing in Washington, DC convened to debate the proposed construction of a nuclear waste repository. The waste was to be treated, encapsulated, and placed in deep rock strata known to be geologically stable since their formation. Even under a hypothetical catastrophic event, the radiation exposure to the public would have been well below what everyone receives, annually, from naturally occurring radiation sources.

Nevertheless, an environmentalist took the floor and argued that because radiation is a known carcinogen (which is true), there is no safe level of exposure (which is false), and therefore any radioactive release into the biosphere is an undue cancer risk (also false). For emotional impact, he cited instances of childhood leukemia that were heart-wrenching but irrelevant since they were unrelated to radiation exposure. It didn’t matter; as I surveyed the hearing room, it became clear to me that public opinion there was not being shaped by scientific fact.

Over the last 40 years, that kind of thinking—or, more precisely, unthinking—has led to the atrophy of commercial nuclear power as plant closures have far-outpaced plant openings. (In the US, 23 reactor units are in the process of decommissioning and closure; only two new units are under construction.) This is a great shame. For had science prevailed, political will and technical wherewithal might have been brought to bear on enhanced uranium extraction techniques, advanced reactor designs, and nuclear fuel reprocessing and recycling to make concerns over greenhouse gases and climate change non-issues with a commercial-scale source of energy that is carbon-neutral, sustainable, and renewable.

In short, nuclear power remains the only proven technology capable of serving the energy needs of modern society with carbon-emission-free generation. Any future where that is the goal belongs to nuclear.

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