If I asked you to name alternate energy sources, you’d probably name nuclear energy (along with wind, sun, and water). Many countries are heavily investing in nuclear energy as an alternate energy source. It seems great–you can make tons and tons of energy from just a few molecules. But there are a few problems.
Nuclear meltdowns occur, as I’m sure you know, when something in a nuclear reactor goes wrong, BIG things happen. Chernobyl is the most famous instance, but Japan’s recent Fukushima disaster might be more famous now. Sorry Chernobyl. The U.S. had a few meltdowns too, most notably Three Mile Island. This partial meltdown occured in 1979, and 40,000 gallons of radioactive waste were released into the Susquehanna River. While a lengthy investigation reported no impact on the nearby population, I spoke with someone who thought differently. An Advanced Placement Chemistry teacher at a well-ranked high school remembers,
“I still hold a grudge against the nuclear industry. They didn’t inform people that they had released radioactive iodine gas. They were scared. When people are scared they are reluctant to say anything until they are forced to. Fear makes people silent. My mother died of thyroid cancer, which she got soon after that melt down. They reported no significant impact. Tell that to my mother.”
The source wanted to remain anonymous.
Fortunately, though, regulations and emergency procedures have been improved since then. A nuclear reactor meltdown is extremely unlikely in the U.S. today. So why isn’t everyone using nuclear energy?
Well, a nuclear plant is relatively cheap to construct. While it costs considerably more than an equivalent coal plant, it is still affordable, considering how much electricity a nuclear plant can produce.
The expensive part is taking it down. Nuclear plants only last about 40 years. Newer ones can last up to 60. Decommissioning a nuclear plant costs, on average, $325 million. That is a really expensive trash can.
But the biggest reason people aren’t investing too much in nuclear energy is simpler than that. Let’s take a look at coal. At current rates, global coal supplies will last at most 200 years. Oil and natural gas, probably less (though fracking may give us more). Nuclear energy? Also only 200 years. And that is at current rates. Nuclear energy supplies about 14% of the worlds electricity right now. Coal, in comparison, supplies 42% of the worlds electricity. Nuclear energy is non-renewable, and the supplies of uranium are extremely limited. If we don’t increase our nuclear energy demand, it will still run out when coal will. So clearly our current nuclear energy is not the solution to the global energy crisis.
Tomorrow, I’ll take a look at alternate nuclear energies. Maybe there is a way nuclear energy can solve our crisis.