Nuclear pollution blown out of proportion

Let’s take a minute and talk about why nuclear power isn’t as bad as it seems. Today, when we think about nuclear power, we think about the most recent incident at the Fukushima plant last year in Japan. This has caused much controversy as we discuss our energy options for the future.

The Fukushima incident caused much fear throughout the world about both nuclear energy and nuclear radiation. Japan has still not resumed nuclear energy operations. Other countries, the largest being Germany, have outright shut down their nuclear projects in the face of public uncertainty about nuclear technology.

These fears, however understandable, are not founded in fact. The dangers of nuclear power are greatly overstated. In terms of the number of actual deaths, nuclear power is far less deadly than the mining of coal, gas or oil. Nuclear power is also free of carbon dioxide emissions, a major cause of global warming. Despite this, many in the environmental movement remain anti-nuclear, even though, in many aspects, nuclear energy is safer and arguably “better” than carbon-based energy sources.

The United States mines enough uranium to sustain its nuclear power programs for quite a long time, as opposed to coal or natural gas, which will reach the natural end of their fuel supplies in, theoretically, the coming centuries.

While experts agree that there is a limited supply of fossil fuels, they disagree on the amount of time it will take fossil fuels will remain economically viable. With advancements in technology, we have developed “breeder reactors” that essentially use the leftover nuclear materials from the normal process of creating nuclear energy, further extending the lifespan of the nuclear fuel.

The safety issues of radiation and nuclear energy, while not to be downplayed, have been blown out of proportion. The propagation of misinformation is both rampant and not conducive to a responsible national dialog about the energy needs of the United States.

Some fear that a nuclear plant could possibly explode like a nuclear bomb does. However, this is impossible because the uranium is not enriched to the same degree as that in a nuclear warhead. The percentage of uranium that is the fissionable isotope in a typical civilian nuclear reactors is 3 to 4 percent, while the percentage required for a nuclear weapon is at least 90 percent . The Fukushima disaster in 2011 also resulted from design flaws not present in new reactors.

Another major concern with the use of nuclear energy is what to do with the nuclear waste. Decades of “not in my backyard” activism has created a situation where, despite the increase in demand for energy, it is becoming more and more difficult to find places willing to accept waste associated with the production of that energy. This is particular true of nuclear waste.

Yucca Mountain in Nevada is a prime example of this.

While Yucca Mountain in many ways is an ideal place to dispose of nuclear waste, local Nevada politics has ensured that this type of waste is kept out of state and has, in turn, created a rippling effect of problems concerning where and how to dispose of nuclear waste.

Unfortunately, another one of the hidden costs of anti-nuclear sentiment is the relative lack of investment in nuclear technology. A concerted investment in practical nuclear technology could result in a number of scientific breakthroughs in both energy creation and disposal.