For those who recognize our harrowing environmental circumstance and are compelled to heed to the call of sustainability (as we all should), there are means of action. Low-carbon alternatives to conventional consumer goods are becoming ubiquitous, and there is an incipient cultural shift toward more sustainable lifestyles that will surely play a prominent role in the future.
But we can only go so far in our individual efforts. We must not neglect the need for large-scale, government-run operations to assuage our addiction to fossil fuels. It is for precisely this reason we all must abandon our naive fears of nuclear energy and embrace nuclear power for what it really is: a safe, convenient and efficient source of energy that must be utilized if we are to seriously combat our climate crisis.
In any pragmatic examination of energy policy, there are three key terms that must first be established: baseload, footprint and portfolio.
Gwyneth Cravens, an environmental activist and former New Yorker editor, explains baseload most concisely in her 2007 book, Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy. Cravens describes baseload as “the minimum amount of proven, consistent, around-the-clock power that utilities must supply to meet the demands of their millions of consumers.”
Grid power, the energy required to fuel our growing cities and booming urbanized populations, requires baseload as its foundation. So far in the U.S., baseload comes from fossil fuels (68 percent), renewable energy (13 percent) and nuclear power (19 percent). Wind and solar, however desirable, cannot currently provide baseload power, but future innovations in energy storage could update their potential. Until then, considering hydroelectricity’s myriad inconveniences, nuclear energy proves to be the most viable energy source to meet our baseload needs.
Footprint is the physical efficiency of a given utility. For example, to produce 1,000 megawatts of energy, a wind farm would have to cover 200 square miles, and a solar array would require 50 square miles. In comparison, a nuclear power plant would take up only one-third of a square mile to obtain the same amount of power.
Beyond its spacial capabilities, nuclear waste is miniscule in size. A person’s entire lifetime’s worth of electricity, strictly from nuclear energy, amounts to waste roughly the size of a Coke can. From there, nuclear waste goes into dry cask storage, where it is kept in a small area and is monitored and controlled.
In comparison, a person using strictly coal produces 77 tons of carbon dioxide in a lifetime. It is then released into our planet’s atmosphere, contributing to a climate crisis that threatens our very existence.
Nuclear meltdown incidents are always a possibility but are rare. However, the safety of nuclear power plants has advanced dramatically since the cases of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. In fact, the cause of last year’s Fukushima Daiichi disaster had more to do with negligent geographical placement than anything else.
The last essential term in understanding nuclear energy’s importance is portfolio, which refers to the fact climate change is such a serious matter that we have to do everything, simultaneously, to combat it.
Nuclear energy is no be-all cure, and it certainly has its risks, but they are miniscule compared to the climate chaos that will ensue if we do not reform our current energy policies. At the very least, we should embrace nuclear energy as a temporary alternative to fossil fuels while the transition to a more renewable-based energy economy is being developed.
In any case, nuclear energy’s undeserved stigma is something that will simply have to evaporate as climate change becomes more readily apparent and accepted. Let’s just hope that by then, it’s not too late.