Nuclear Power is the Answer to Global and Environmental Energy Woes

Nuclear Power is the Answer to Global and Environmental Energy Woes

Only nuclear power is carbon-free and able to meet growing U.S. calls for electrification and global needs for basic economic growth

The long-term energy crisis provoked by the war in Ukraine has been economically destructive to the entire world—Europe faces the prospect of deindustrialization, coal factories have been turned back on, countries in the Global South have been priced out of liquified natural gas markets, and so on. Yet demand for energy is expected to keep growing. Higher energy prices reverberate throughout the entire economy, and arguably where oil prices go, there go prices for everything since over 6,000 daily products emanate from petroleum derivatives.

Given this situation, one thing is very clear: only nuclear power is carbon-free and able to meet growing U.S. calls for electrification and global needs for basic economic growth. Nuclear power works to alleviate the dependence on oil and gas, since it is abundant, energy dense, and can be a tool against Middle East geopolitical mechanisms used against whatever U.S. president is in office.

America is Investing in Nuclear

Washington is cognizant of this necessity. In April 2022, two senators introduced the International Nuclear Energy Act of 2022 to enable a “whole-of-government” strategy for U.S. global leadership in civil nuclear technologies, including advanced nuclear technology (ANT). Nuclear power is now at the forefront of safe, reliable, emission-free ways to produce electricity and thermal heat. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, approximately 70 small modular reactors (SMRs) concepts are currently under research and development.

Globally, there are roughly nine different types of SMR designs. These are fluid projections since new Generation IV (Gen IV) technologies are rapidly changing. For the United States, companies such as NuScale Power’s VOYGR SMR design to Kairos Power’s Fluoride salt-cooled high-temperature reactor; and Westinghouse’s eVinci Heat pipe-cooled microreactor are leading the way for ANT.

Gen IV reactors and SMRs offer financial benefits and improvements from Generation III-III+ reactors with their ability to produce electricity at a lower operational cost over the life of the power plant. Moreover, SMRs offer lower initial capital investment, greater scalability, and sitting flexibility for locations unable or unwilling to accommodate larger light water reactor power plants. The potential for enhanced safety and security compared to previous designs makes advanced reactors desirable moving forward. This drives economic growth and high-paying professions in the nuclear industry.

Alternatives to Nuclear Aren’t Enough

Unfortunately, nuclear power has been demonized, and many believe it should be fought against at all costs. Nothing could be further from the truth. Approximately 200 people have died of radiation from nuclear accidents in over sixty years. These numbers are inclusive of accidents at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima. Counting cancer diagnoses among people exposed to radiation from these accidents, the harm from a nuclear power plant compared to the effects of coal pollution or methane emissions from natural-gas-fired power plants is definitive proof why nuclear power is the best choice for energy and electricity when all factors are considered.

Speaking of coal, the recent dramatic increase in coal use numbers more than echo the call for greater nuclear power. Despite global promises, 2022 witnessed “the coal fleet grow by 19.5 gigawatts, enough to light up around 15 million homes.” New coal plants were predominantly added in China and India, then Indonesia, Turkey, and Zimbabwe. If nuclear power were deployed instead of coal, global emissions would have declined instead of growth in the United States and abroad.

But what about the counter-argument of using renewables? The wind and the sun are always free, and no matter what OPEC, the international oil cartel, conjures up the change in energy prices can be countered with natural resources.

If only that were true. Renewables use enormous amounts of materials compared to nuclear and fossil fuels. It is a misnomer to say renewables are carbon-free compared to nuclear power. Whereas nuclear power accounts for all materials through the decommissioning phase—and surprisingly, 90 percent of all materials from a nuclear power plant can be recycled—compared to old wind and solar platforms, which generate millions of tons of waste. The International Renewable Energy Agency calculates that old solar panel disposal to meet 2050 Paris Accords “will more than double the tonnage of all of today’s global plastic waste.”

Of course, nuclear power plants themselves require enormous amounts of steel, rebar, concrete, wiring, plastics, and other materials. But a nuclear power plant reliably performs and isn’t intermittent, unreliable, or variable. As an example, a typical wind turbine demands “900 tons of steel, 2,500 tons of concrete and 45 tons of nonrecyclable plastic” to function. Solar power requires even more metals, cement, steel, and glass. Renewables have their uses in non-grid applications, some microgrids, and remote applications, but to build enough wind turbines and solar panels to supply at least half the electricity needed for global consumption “would require two billions tons of coal to produce the concrete and steel, along with two billion barrels of oil to make the composite blades. [And] more than 90% of the world’s solar panels are built in Asia on coal-heavy electrical grids.”

Nuclear power plants do not run into heavy fossil fuel conditions nor do they need to be replaced within a mere ten to twenty years the way industrial solar and wind farms need replacement under current technology. A nuclear power plant does not warrant nearly the amount of land renewables confiscate, and this is where the greatest advantage lies. True, coal-fired and natural-gas-fired power plants also do not require significant amounts of land. But it is the land-use issue that is crucial for why nuclear power can solve global and environmental energy woes. Nuclear will play a leading role in mitigating the effects of high land-usage renewables on the grid, and growing populations in India, Africa, and Asia gaining carbon-free electricity according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Nuclear’s Time Has Come

The United States’ nuclear industry has had a tough stretch, but the biggest obstacle to advanced reactor progress, lower emissions, and geopolitical stability is the modern environmental movement. What once was meant for good has taken on the stench of Malthusianism. Nuclear can also solve that woe.

Todd Royal is the Senior Project Analyst for E4 Carolinas, a non-profit energy advocacy firm located in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he is working on a three-year grant for the U.S. Department of Commerce's Economic Development Administration focusing on a value chain study for the advanced nuclear technology sector (Generation IV reactors, SMRs, and advanced reactors). Todd lives outside of Dallas, Texas.