Despite the public’s mistrust, nuclear power may be our only hope to meet our demand for emissions-free energy. Tragic accidents and well-warranted fears about nuclear proliferation undermined the public’s confidence. Just last week President Obama hosted a summit where he met with world leaders to discuss nuclear security. The concerns expressed at this summit bleed into more general concerns about nuclear power.
In addition to concerns about meltdowns and proliferation, there are issues associated with mining the uranium used to power nuclear plants, spent fuel storage, and high cost.
In 2011 President Obama created a clean energy standard that included nuclear power. Renewables have been steadily growing and in 2011 they surpassed nuclear power in the US. While most would agree that renewables are the future, we need nuclear power to help us to get there. However, there is significant resistance.
The disasters at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima have all impacted the popular consciousness. In 2014 the Fukushima disaster actually pushed countries like Japan and Germany to abandon nuclear power. This ostensibly green effort has increased emissions from fossil fuels.
In the US fossil fuels generate about 67 percent of its electricity and nuclear power provides 19 percent. Nuclear also provides 63 percent of the nation’s carbon-free electricity. Overall, electricity generation is responsible for 40 percent of US carbon emissions.
As we are on the cusp of burgeoning electricity demand we must make sure that the power we generate is as clean as the technologies they power. If, for example, we succeed in replacing combustion engine vehicles with EVs we will need to ensure that the electricity they are powered by is also clean. The same can be said for heating systems.
The 2014 “Pathways to Deep Decarbonization” report by consulting firm Energy and Environmental Economics suggested that US energy demand will double due to growing rates of electrification.
The COP21 agreement signed in Paris at the end of last year states that we must see 32 percent cuts in carbon emissions by 2030. As pointed out by the UN we must see 50-80 percent emissions cuts by 2050. Getting there is going to be a challenge that will be rendered virtually impossible without nuclear power.
“We can grow the economy and still have a healthy environment,” says Christine Todd Whitman, former administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in an interview with Environmental Leader. “But you can’t do it without nuclear energy. It is a huge booster to the economy.”
There are undeniable problems with many plants. For example, one of the worst examples in the US is the Indian Point nuclear plant north of New York City. The plant leaked uncontrollable radioactive flow into the groundwater for months, prompting experts to call it “a disaster waiting to happen.”
Most nuclear plants are more reliable and efficient and a new wave of nuclear power options are on the horizon. Innovations like fusion reaction which is far more economical than conventional nuclear power and may prove to be a game-changer in energy generation.
“Right now, this design has the greatest potential of producing economical fusion power of any current concept,” said Thomas Jarboe, a University of Washington professor of aeronautics and astronautics and an adjunct professor in physics.
The University of Washington’s reactor’s prototype, called the dynomk, France’s Iter fusion reactor project.
MIT is working on an ARC (affordable, robust, compact) fusion reactor. Another is the tokamak reactor, which is a hollow metal chamber shaped like a donut twisted into a figure eight.
One truly groundbreaking approach is called Aneutronic Fusion, this is a form of nuclear fusion which produces no harmful neutron radiation, eliminating the need for heavy shielding in energy plants and spacecraft engines.
Another fusion-based source of cheat and clean power is the tokamak reactor, which is a hollow metal chamber shaped like a donut twisted into a figure eight. The Wendelstein 7-X nuclear fusion recreates the fusion activity inside of stars. While it may seem like science fiction this reactor had its first successful test run in December 2015.