Around the Corner: We cannot abandon nuclear power

Graphic by Iris Yang

Our efforts to fight global warming, while increasingly significant, have not been enough. The prospect that warming will be halted at 1.5 degrees Celsius, the boundary between the bad and the disastrous, is growing less likely by the year. Indeed, the World Meteorological Organization estimates that there is a 50% chance that temperatures will reach 1.5 degree warming within the next five years. Given the increasing severity of the situation, averting this fate would be a monumental feat. The UN Environment Programme has warned that carbon emissions would need to be slashed by at least 45% by 2030 to accomplish it. If this target is to be met, significant changes will need to be made in nearly every facet of our lives. However, the most important facet is energy: the foundation of the modern world. Nearly three quarters of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the energy sector. Evidently, reducing emissions will require significant changes to how we produce and use energy. In short, clean energy generation methods must replace fossil fuels.

The largest challenge in accomplishing this is that alternatives to fossil fuels must not only generate a larger share of total energy today but also tomorrow. Energy use is increasing faster than renewables can keep up. The energy that cannot be generated by renewables will come from fossil fuels. Clean energy needs all the help that it can get: enter, nuclear energy. It has proven to be a highly reliable, high capacity power source; the only harmful byproduct it emits is nuclear waste, which can be safely stored or even recycled. The public mind, however, views nuclear energy nearly as poorly as oil and gas drilling. This is, in part, due to disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima that are inextricably linked to nuclear energy. Public anxieties around nuclear power have resulted, in many countries, in a moratorium on the building of new plants and the shuttering of old ones. Nuclear power’s share in energy generation has been slashed in the UK, Germany and Japan. 

The public’s image of nuclear energy is far from reality. Though it is true that accidents like Chernobyl are devastating, they are exceedingly rare. Moreover, nuclear technology has and will continue to advance significantly, making reactors safer than ever before. Even factoring older accidents into account, nuclear energy’s negative health effects are astonishingly low, causing almost zero deaths per unit of electricity production. Many deaths related to it occur in workplace accidents during reactor construction, not from meltdowns. 

This is not just a question of whether constructing new nuclear reactors can aid the battle against climate change but also one of whether to maintain existing reactors. Existing nuclear reactors, which provide nearly a fifth of electricity in the United States (and similar numbers in many other developed countries), are aging. As they shut down, a key source of clean energy will be lost. To avoid 1.5 degrees, let’s get back together with nuclear.

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