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Nuclear Energy: The Myths, the Future, and Public Perception

Before you begin, share YOUR thoughts! ON this Padlet, share a couple words about your perception of nuclear energy!

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How trusting are you of nuclear energy?

I completely trust it.
I mostly trust it.
I’m in the middle.
I mostly distrust it.
I completely distrust it.
If you answered “I completely trust it” or “I mostly trust it,” answer the following question below: do you have any kind of advanced/specific chemistry education and/or have discussed nuclear energy specifically with someone who has?

Yes
No
Other

Nuclear energy. Two words that incite fear, curiosity, confusion, mistrust, hope, or a frustrating blend of the five in the general population. Ever since nuclear energy was first developed for commercial, electricity production in 1957 (PBS), it has since grown to inspire a theoretical future of free and unlimited clean energy. Inside a plant, a controlled nuclear reaction heats water to over 600 degrees to produce steam in order to turn a turbine, not unlike the steam-powered turbines in coal and petroleum power plants (PBS). After the nuclear fuel has been used for 5 to 6 years, it becomes spent fuel, and the highly radioactive waste is then stored in an interim spent fuel pool to be cooled for 3-10 years until it is safe enough to be transferred to a long-term geological disposal site (NAE). The site originally chosen in the US was the Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but after 20 years of study and $10 billion dollars, the project was canceled (BRC). The DOE created the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, or BRC, which recommends the creation of one or more centralized, temporary, spent-fuel storage facilities in the absence of the waste disposal site (NAE).

Due to skyrocketing construction costs and public fear of nuclear disaster, no new nuclear plants had been ordered into construction in the US between 1978 and 2008 (PBS/WNA). However, with the expanding scientific industry and improving infrastructure, nuclear energy proves itself to be a green and sustainably cost-efficient energy source for the future. And, although theoretical, nuclear fusion could be developed for the non-radioactive production of electricity within the next five decades.

Nuclear energy is promising and already exists, so what is stopping its proliferation and success? The answer? Public perception. The threat of nuclear war and horror stories in the wake of Fukushima, Chernobyl, and the nuclear bombs of World War II have imprinted upon the public an association between the horrific end-of-times and nuclear energy. While conducting a survey of my high school regarding the student body’s trust and knowledge on the topic of nuclear energy, a pattern quickly emerged: all students in 10th, 11th, or 12th grade who had taken either Accelerated or AP Chemistry supported nuclear energy and accredited their support to the content they learned in said chemistry classes. The majority of people against cited a sheer lack of knowledge, and after reading a quick paragraph about the advancements in safety and technology within the nuclear energy sector, over 80% changed their opinions to leaning towards “in favor.” To best form your own opinions, it’s important to research nuclear energy from many different perspectives. For example, any pieces of writing written by myself will be slightly biased towards supporting nuclear energy because I support nuclear energy myself. Visit websites and read books from different sources and educate yourself on the science behind nuclear energy, not just the politics.

The PBS documentary below, released in 2017, highlights different perspectives of the nuclear-energy debate in a post-Fukushima world; although the documentary shines an arguably negative light on nuclear energy, it describes the new generation of nuclear engineers poised to expand nuclear energy in the 21st century.

This video, from PBS, describes the possible negative affects of nuclear energy, including radiation on the human body. While it is arguably biased because of the omission of nuclear-supportive details, it is still explains complex radiation science in a simple fashion.

This interview with climate scientist and activist, Stewart Brand provides an argument for nuclear energy over other renewables. While it should be taken with a grain of salt, given that he is an author promoting a newly published book, he provides evidence in support of nuclear energy for people wondering if other renewables are not better, pre-existing choices.

 


The photo was taken after the Tokaimura nuclear accident in 1999. At the time, it was the worst nuclear accident in Japanese history.

Regardless of facts, arguments on both sides of the debate are passionate and convincing. The “against” side often capitalizes on the humanitarian aspect of the issue, like in this article by Greenpeace. The article cites the potential for meltdowns, “dirty bombs,” and terrorism targets as a few reasons why nuclear energy isn’t good for “the people,” but the article draws unnecessary and false parallels between is nuclear energy and nuclear weapons, which allows them to make many outlandish claims and mislead audiences.

Many other common arguments can be debunked. For example, the article describes how “nuclear plants take at least a decade to build, much longer than wind and solar energy projects.” While it is true that wind and solar projects don’t take 10 years to build, neither do nuclear projects. In fact, an article by Euan Mearns compiled IAEA PRIS data to prove that out of the 441 operational reactors in the world, 374 were “build in 10 or less than 10 years,” and that “18 reactors were completed in 3 years.”

Another common reason against nuclear energy is the steep cost. Like the Greenpeace article, many op-eds emphasize how nuclear energy costs more than any other form of electricity in the market, which is entirely fictitious. In the US, nuclear energy costs less per kilowatt hour than coal, offshore wind, and solar. In many countries, such as France, the UK, and Korea, nuclear energy costs less per kilowatt hour than gas, onshore wind, offshore wind, solar, and coal, according to the World Nuclear Association. It should be said, however, that nuclear power plants costs on average between $6 billion and $9 billion per 1,100 MW plant, which is a rate of about $5500/kw to $8200/kw in construction costs, making it the most expensive energy source in the industry in construction costs

Uranium scarcity is also a common theme. The article says that “nuclear is not renewable. Nuclear power relies on scarce uranium to fuel its reactors. If we replaced all fossil fuels with nuclear power, the world would run out of uranium in less than four years.” This implies that uranium is far more scarce than it truly is; according to Steve Fetter’s article in Scientific American, “if the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) has accurately estimated the planet’s economically accessible uranium resources, reactors could run more than 200 years at current rates of consumption,” specifically, about 230 years, and as nuclear technology improves, uranium requirements of an LWR could be cut in half by using more enrichment work and separating plutonium and uranium from spent LEU to make fresh fuel.

The final point the article makes is that nuclear waste poses a serious threat to human existence, and this is a frequent topic of concern for people on both sides of the 

debate. But the issue must be addressed with the facts. According to the World Nuclear Association, which created the chart left, the waste that poses a serious threat represents only 3% of the world’s radioactive waste, and 90% of waste (low-level waste) has only a 1% radioactive content. While radioactive waste should undoubtedly be a concern as the nuclear energy industry expands, but the concern should be “where do we safely store, shield, and cool high-level waste for 30-24,000 years, depending on the isotope?” (Note: the longest half life for an isotope, specifically Plutonium-239, is 24,000 years, which is far less than Greenpeace’s claim of “hundreds of thousands of years.” After 40 years, spent fuel “removed from a reactor holds only one thousandth of its initial radioactivity,” according to the WNA.) The concern shouldn’t be how radioactive waste will be a “poisonous legacy for future generations.”


While the article was written by Greenpeace, an organization with the goal of creating institutional change, not education, it repeats themes common in the majority of anti-nuclear articles, op-eds, and arguments.

 


Do you support/oppose nuclear energy after doing research? Reach to your local politicians or governor and ask what they’re stance is. Write a letter including your name, where you live, and you’ll be of voting age soon or currently are. Then tell them whether you do or do not support nuclear energy and whether or not you want to see proliferation in your state. Here’s a list of all state governor’s and their contact information, and a list of all senator’s and their contact information. The best way to be a part of the conversation of nuclear energy in your community is to reach out and start talking! Here’s a sample letter to get you started:

 

Governor/Representative’s Address

Dear Representative (last name):

Legislation addressing nuclear energy in (your state) is of paramount interest to me because I am a (student, about to be of voting age, parent, teacher, etc.) This issue directly impacts (my students, my profession, the way we as professionals will be able to function effectively, my child, etc.)

I am primarily concerned/excited about the proliferation of nuclear energy because (state reasons or examples briefly, with only as many relevant details as necessary to make your point clearly.) Other aspects of this same issue that affect (my student, profession, child) are (describe briefly any secondary concerns and supporting situations, reasons, examples, etc.)

 

Although I have read reports of your position in the news, I realize this may not fully represent your viewpoint. Therefore, I will look forward to your reply expressing your opinions, and your current stance on the issue.

OR

I have read reports of your position in the news, and I understand that you agree with my stance. I look forward to your legislation reflected the opinions of both yourself and the people you serve.

OR

Although I have followed your stance on this topic in the news, I still do not understand your stance on nuclear energy. I will look forward to your reply expressing your opinions, and your current stance on the issue.

 

Thank you for your consideration of my viewpoint on this matter. I believe it is an important issue, and would like to see legislation (support/oppose) nuclear energy in the future.

Sincerely,

Your name,
Address
Phone Number
Email Address

 


Works Cited and Consulted:

https://www.nae.edu/19582/Bridge/59220/59226.aspx

https://www.nrc.gov/waste/spent-fuel-storage/faqs.html

http://www.pbs.org/video/america-revealed-nuclear-power/

https://www.energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2013/04/f0/brc_finalreport_jan2012.pdf

https://www.ucsusa.org/nuclear-power/cost-nuclear-power#.WtkzXtPwZ-U

http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/economic-aspects/economics-of-nuclear-power.aspx

https://www.greenpeace.org/archive-international/en/campaigns/climate-change/Solutions/Reject-false-solutions/No-to-nuclear/

https://www.iaea.org/pris/

https://www.eia.gov/electricity/generatorcosts/

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-long-will-global-uranium-deposits-last/

http://www.world-nuclear.org/nuclear-basics/what-are-nuclear-wastes.aspx

https://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/fact-sheets/radwaste.html

https://www.altaread.org/letter-representative.asp

http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/country-profiles/countries-t-z/usa-nuclear-power.aspx

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COMMENTS: 1
  1. April 28, 2018 by Tina Bessias

    I love your even-handed approach to providing text for letters to politicians. A great way to get people involved!

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