Nuclear Power’s Place in an Uncertain Energy and Changing Climate World

by Joe Mirabella

iStock_000055421440MediumFor millennium no one knew how the sun worked. Then in 1905 Albert Einstein discovered that energy and mass were interchangeable with his famous formula, energy equals mass times the speed of light squared (E=MC2). In other words, a little mass can give a whole lot of energy. In the 1930’s it was discovered that if you bombard Uranium 235 with neutrons you create a chain reaction which can unleash that energy. This led to the development of the atomic bomb in WWII.

In 1955 the navy developed the first nuclear powered submarine. That technology was developed to generate electricity that is now operating approximately 430 nuclear power plants in the world, around 100 in the U.S. generating around 20% of our electricity. However, starting in the 60’s and 70’s, concern developed regarding the safety of these nuclear plants and the long term disposal of highly radioactive nuclear waste. The nuclear accidents at 3 Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima and the failure establish a long term nuclear waste depository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada has rightfully fed into these legitimate concerns.

However alarms over the environmental effects of global warming resulting from massive CO2 emissions have led some environmentalist to reevaluate the relative dangers of nuclear power. Nuclear power plants emit no CO2 or any air pollution. Estimates vary but air pollution from burning fossil fuels for electricity kills around 1.5 million people a year worldwide from stokes, heart disease, COPD, cancers, asthma and other diseases (WHO). Coal is a particularly destructive source of energy not just from air pollution but from mining and disposal of millions of tons of toxic coal ash.

The Chernobyl accident accounts for all documented deaths from all nuclear accidents at around 78. Long term increased cancers from low level radiation spread from Chernobyl and Fukushima (none from 3 Mile Island) are difficult to measure and estimates vary widely from zero to thousands spread over decades but nowhere near that from burning fossil fuels.

All nuclear power plants are not the same. The Chernobyl reactor was a terrible, dangerous design that no longer exists and the Fukushima plant had major serious design flaws that could not handle the tsunami that struck it. Modern existing designs are far safer and more efficient and there are many advanced experimental designs that would eclipse even those. Fusion nuclear reactors promise unlimited clean energy from seawater with no nuclear waste and no possibility of a nuclear accident.

Long term storage of nuclear waste does not yet exist but existing intermediate term storage in concrete and steel silos could provide indefinite safe storage. Radioactive decay continuously reduces the dangers that these wastes pose. Existing and advanced nuclear reactor designs could use nuclear waste as fuel to greatly reduce or eliminate radioactive waste.

In conclusion: Nuclear energy has its risks that need to be evaluated seriously but its 60 year record is far less environmentally dangerous and destructive than burning fossil fuels. Existing nuclear power plants should be kept in operation and modernized whenever possible. New nuclear power plants may not be financially viable, at least in the short run, because of the current abundance of cheap natural gas unless there is a carbon tax or carbon credits. Later in this century fusion power may provide mankind with unlimited clean and safe energy but until then energy conservation, improved efficiency and renewable energies like solar are always the best way to go.

This is an overview of a presentation given by the Ewing Environmental Commission’s Joe Mirabella. For more information and to arrange for a presentation contact him at Look for the slide show with presentation highlights coming soon.

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