Why Nuclear Is the Source of Energy That Even Bill Gates Approves
Our society is one that’s undoubtedly energy-dependent.
According to “International Energy Outlook 2019” published by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), the world energy consumption is projected to grow by nearly 50% between 2018 and 2050. At the same time, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), electricity production accounted for nearly 27% of all greenhouse gases emitted in 2018 (about 63% of US energy comes from burning fossil fuels).
This means that unless we find another reliable source of energy, a lot more fossil fuels would have to be burned to meet the rising energy demands, accelerating the devastating greenhouse effects that already plague our world today.
And at the end of 2018, Bill Gates published an online letter reflecting on 2018’s events while setting up his goals for 2019. And when it came to the issue of Energy, Bill Gates notably writes that “Nuclear is ideal for dealing with climate change, because it is the only carbon-free, scalable energy source that’s available 24 hours a day.”
The case for nuclear energy
According to an opinion piece published in The New York Times by Dr. Goldstein, Dr. Qvist, and Dr. Pinker, Germany, a country “which went all-in for renewables”, has only seen a small reduction in carbon emissions. On the other hand, France was able to greatly reduce carbon emissions, replacing “almost all of its fossil-fueled electricity with nuclear power in just 15 years”.
Furthermore, according to an article published by the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), nuclear power “prevented an average of 64 gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent (GtCO2-eq) net GHG emissions globally between 1971–2009” and that “despite the three major nuclear accidents the world has experienced, nuclear power prevented an average of over 1.8 million net deaths worldwide between 1971–2009”.
Nuclear power plants are actually much safer than we think they are
When we think of nuclear power plants, many of us are instantly reminded of disasters such as the Chernobyl and Fukushima incidents. These are nuclear accidents that will continue to require constant care, isolation, and cleaning up for a very very long time. (In Chernobyl’s case, the cleanup is expected to last until at least 2065).
Apart from accidents, many others associate nuclear power plants with radiation poisoning and even nuclear warheads.
However, while employing nuclear means to generate energy, like everything else, has inherent risks, we have to step back and see that the other power generating industries often have major accidents as well (E.g. coal mine accidents, drill rig fires, dams leading to flooding).
Furthermore, as Hannah Ritchie aptly puts it in this article, “nuclear risk is generally focused within low-probability, high-impact single events in contrast to air pollution impacts which provide a persistent background health risk”. According to GISS, while coal, oil, and natural gas are projected to have contributed to about 1.8 million deaths worldwide, nuclear energy’s low carbon footprint has contributed to virtually none.
In addition, according to Robert Rapier over at Forbes, it has to be noted that neither power plants at Chernobyl and Fukushima were “fail-safe designs”. In reality, “nuclear power plants must be designed to be fail-safe, if not fail-proof. To be fail-safe means that if an accident does take place, the system goes to a safe state.” As governments begin to increase regulations and conduct more stringent checks, safe power plant designs can ensure that the risk associated with nuclear power is reduced to near zero.
There are good ways to deal with nuclear waste now
When talking about the viability of nuclear power, the issue of nuclear waste disposal is one of the biggest obstacles.
However, in reality, according to the World Nuclear Association, the amount of waste generated by nuclear power is actually very small relative to other thermal electricity generation technologies.
For nuclear waste that no longer is of use, deep geological disposal is used. Here, nuclear waste is buried at depths between 250m to 1000m (for mined repositories) or 2000m to 5000m in boreholes.
And for transportation between the power plant and the disposal facility, “Type B” casks are used to transport the rods safely. With a combination of steel and lead shielding, we can rest assured knowing that nuclear waste will not pose a radiation risk when it is being transported.
Furthermore, with improvements to technology, spent fuel rods can be processed and reused in energy production. For example, Terrapower hopes to use depleted uranium rods as the “initiator” that kickstarts the “titular traveling wave reaction” for nuclear fission to happen. By using advancements in technology to reuse spent fuel rods, we can further reduce the amount of waste nuclear power plants produce, making it an even more attractive source of power.
Combining nuclear power with renewable energy sources will be the way to reduce reliance on coal and fossil fuels
In the battle for the future of power, many often see it as a three-sided fight between dirty energy (coal and fossil fuels), nuclear energy, and renewable energy. However, in reality, we should be grouping nuclear energy together with renewable energy.
In the opinion piece by Dr. Goldstein et al., it is rightly pointed out that renewables will only work well with fossil fuel backup. This is because renewable energy is highly dependent on the environment (the presence of sunlight and wind etc.). On the other hand, it is difficult for nuclear power plants to increase the power output temporarily to meet peak demand.
As such, in order to obtain a dependable source of energy, nuclear energy should be adopted to provide baseload power while renewables can be relied on to provide the peak load. This way, these clean energy sources can efficiently crowd out dirty energy.
The final word
Of course, nuclear is a costly alternative to burning fossil fuels. However, in a world facing an impending climate crisis, turning towards nuclear energy is one of the best ways for us to continue powering our world while reducing our carbon footprint.
As more and more countries and energy companies begin to embrace nuclear energy, the technology can also be further improved, creating a nuclear energy industry vibrant with safe and innovative ways of harvesting nuclear power. And in this future, we can all continue to be energy dependent without stressing our environment any further.
Let’s all work together to power our future with nuclear energy.