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Nuclear energy or coal

4-23-2019

Joe Whitmer, Contributing Writer

For almost a century and a half, the United States has been using coal as its main source of electricity. As climate change becomes more of an issue, seeking out alternatives to coal is an important, albeit difficult, process. One underused alternative is nuclear power, accounting for merely twenty percent of the United States’ electricity, compared to seventy-five percent of France’s. There are several reasons the US does not use as much nuclear energy as we could, but the time for change is now, and we must move towards a more efficient future.

One of the biggest factors that makes nuclear energy more appealing than coal is the emissions produced. Reducing emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) is an important step towards slowing climate change. As stated by worldnuclear.org, coal produces large amounts of CO2, over 2.2 billion tones for the generation of 2518 terawatt hours (TWh), compared to 73 million tonnes of CO2 emitted from nuclear energy, producing the same amount of energy. That’s right, for the same amount of energy, coal produces thirty times as much CO2. So why isn’t the United States using as much nuclear energy?

When comparing the health effects of coal production versus nuclear production, it is up for debate on which one is safer. Many people assume that nuclear power plants are very dangerous and can cause cancer, but David R. Rossin says in his article Marketing Fear: Nuclear Issues in Public Policy, “although it is physically impossible, critics warn of a Chernobyl type disaster in a licensed U.S. reactor. Doses to millions of people twenty miles away from the plant are calculated to receive radiation equal to one percent of natural background radiation.” Comparatively, coal factories produce many heavy metals that build up in the body and can cause cancer. Rossin states that it is significantly safer to live beside a nuclear plant than a coal plant. In an article from NASA titled Coal and Gas are Far More Harmful than Nuclear Power, they predict that if the world were to switch to nuclear electricity rather than coal or gas, up to 7 million deaths are expected to be prevented, 1.4 million of which in the U.S.

There are some problems with nuclear energy, and a large part can be attributed to public opinion. Back in the 1970’s, nuclear power was still vastly misunderstood, with many dangerous, yet avoidable, scenarios influencing the public’s opinion. Not the least of which is the Three Mile Island Accident, the most significant nuclear accident in United States’ history. It occurred in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania in March of 1979. According to worldnuclear.org, it started with a failure in the design of a non-nuclear secondary system, and due to improper training, led to large amounts of nuclear reactor coolant to escape the plant. This accident solidified the public’s worries about nuclear energy. However, since then technology and training has made leaps and bounds and is much safer. Barring a natural disaster, such as the accident in Fukushima in 2011, an accident such as that is extremely unlikely.

Another issue that must be mitigated is the disposal of nuclear waste after it is no longer usable. Back in the ‘70’s, the understanding of nuclear waste was minimal, which led to improper storage techniques, which led to further swaying of the public’s opinion. Since then, the understanding and technology has increased, and there are much safer ways to dispose of the waste. Vitrification, or the process of turning waste into a glass, prevents the escape of particles, and is much safer that previous storage technologies. Once the waste is vitrified, it is sent deep below the Earth’s surface, where no air can react with it. However, every attempt to build a deep storage site in the United States has hit a roadblock, because many people do not understand how safe nuclear technology has become, and do not want it anywhere near their towns.

Overall, nuclear electricity could be a great alternative to coal, both in terms of human health and in terms of helping the planet. One of the largest obstacles is public opinion and changing the views about nuclear electricity is an important step towards a cleaner and healthier future. With the technological advancements made over the past couple decades, nuclear plants are significantly safer than they previously were. To slow the tide of climate change, the U.S. needs to look for better alternatives to coal, and nuclear electricity may be one of those alternatives.