Go Nuclear or Go Home

My previous article gave electric cars a conditional two thumbs up as a way of reducing man’s level of carbon dioxide emissions.  The condition is that fossil-fuel-based energy production, which represents about 70% of the total current global energy production, is phased out as EVs are phased in.

A complete makeover of our power plant infrastructure is a daunting task from an economic perspective.  The amount of energy consumed by man is already tremendous, and the demand is going to increase dramatically as certain populous countries develop and cars begin to go electric.  If fossil fuel power plants are to be shut down, what can they be replaced with?

At present, there is only one alternative that can meet the high demand: nuclear power plants.  Solar and wind, while renewable and green, are only effective in certain locations and even then do not give nearly as much bang for your buck.  Put simply, we cannot, at present, expect to meet more than 10% of our global energy production demands with wind and solar.

While nuclear plants do create radioactive waste, the waste can be contained, in contrast to coal plants, which release CO2 directly into the atmosphere.  The sheer amount of waste in the case of nuclear is comparatively so much less because it is 750,000 times more mass efficient then coal.  One kilogram of coal, when burned, can power a 100-Watt light bulb for eight hours.  The fission of one kilogram of enriched uranium can power the same bulb for 690 years.
Why is nuclear power so much more efficient than coal power?  It has to do with the nature of the reaction.  Burning coal is a chemical reaction known as combustion.  A fission reactor houses nuclear reactions, which involves the division of atomic nuclei.  Fission is actually an illustration of the most famous equation in the world, Einstein’s E = mc2.  The equation says that if mass is converted into energy in its entirety, one kilogram becomes 9*1016 Joules, which could power the 100-Watt light bulb for 30,000,000 years.

In a nuclear reactor, only a tiny fraction (about 0.002%) of the mass of the uranium is converted into energy.  As such, nuclear plants only begin to tap into the promise of E = mc2.  Over time, should man figure a way to release all of the energy within the mass of a given spec of matter in a controlled fashion, it would represent a quantum shift for society.  Man’s energy crisis would be replaced by a bottomless pit of energy.  Sadly, this dream sits so far into the future that it is not worth pondering. 

Returning to the current reality, if nuclear power plants can meet global energy demand, are so efficient, and do not dump massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, then why do we not use them exclusively?  The reason comes down to politics and public perception.

When an airplane crashes halfway across the world, every major media outlet worldwide is sure to cover it.  They will however not bother to cover the thousands of fatal car crashes that occur in the same time span.  As a result, the public is typically more fearful of flying than driving, even though it is statistically safer to fly per distance traveled than to drive.

There have been only five noteworthy disasters at the over five hundred nuclear power plants worldwide over the course of the past half century.  Four of them affected hundreds of people (leaving them dead or afflicted with cancer due to radiation).  The other one is that of Chernobyl in 1986. The WHO estimates that the Chernobyl disaster was responsible for 9,000 deaths. 

Even if we include Chernobyl in the statistical analysis, there have been more deaths linked to coal mining than to nuclear disasters per energy produced by each method.  This fact would not be easily perceived by a quick pass through any newspaper, which for months has been reporting about the devastating disaster in Fukushima, which from a nuclear standpoint, was essentially averted.  The newspapers were however very keen on following a rare success story of trapped miners.

The reality is that large-scale energy production is a dangerous practice, and regardless of the production method, strict safety standards must be adhered to.  What we must put ahead of anything else is the equilibrium of our biosphere.  Our fossil fuel energy production over the past century has had a global effect on the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere.  We must produce energy by an alternative means to fossil fuel burning, and in the short term, the only viable option is nuclear power.

If we are serious about minimizing our impact on our planet, we must situate this out-of-sight, out-of-mind issue in plain sight.


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