Pros and Cons of Nuclear Power

By Hamilton Steimer

Photo by Kilian Karger on Unsplash


I have always thought of nuclear energy as a mysterious, “dark” energy source, and I was unsure about nuclear power because I did not know much beyond the scary stories of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. It wasn’t until this past fall, when I read A Bright Future by Joshua Goldstein and Staffan Qvist, that I learned more about nuclear energy and how nuclear power could be a potential climate solution. Although this book mostly has a one-sided argument, I thought it was very insightful, and it helped me form a more informed view on this subject.


I wanted to discuss the pros and cons of nuclear power and offer my opinion on whether it should play a role in achieving a greener future.


What are the pros of nuclear power?


Emission-free energy


If you are truly concerned about the climate crisis, you have to accept that rapidly shutting down our nuclear plants would be counterproductive to decarbonizing our power grid. That’s because electricity generated by nuclear power plants results in no direct carbon emissions. The process that powers a nuclear reactor, called nuclear fission, produces lots of energy that heats up water into steam which then turns a turbine to generate electricity. Although there is radioactive waste produced, which we will talk more about later, electricity generation from nuclear energy does not contribute to the climate crisis.


In the United States, nuclear power generates around 20% of the country’s total annual electricity generation, making it our largest single source of clean energy.


Energy reliability


One of the biggest advantages of nuclear power compared to alternative energy sources is nuclear power plants operate almost all the time. They have a very high capacity factor, which measures how often a power plant is running compared to its maximum output. An average nuclear power plant has a capacity factor of over 90%, which far outperforms any other energy source. Coal and natural gas range between 40–60%, hydro is around 40%, wind is 35%, and solar power is just 25%.


Nuclear power’s high capacity factor is the reason why countries like Germany, which have closed their nuclear reactors, are struggling to meet their clean energy goals. Compared to an 800 MW nuclear power plant operating at 92%, you would need a wind farm of around 2 GW or a solar farm of almost 3 GW to produce the same amount of emission-free electricity. For reference, the largest solar farm in the country is Solar Star in California, which has a capacity of 579 MW.


Good safety record


Although nuclear power plants are often thought of as security risks and as being dangerous, they are probably the safest means of producing electricity. Part of the reason why nuclear power plants are so expensive is because of the extremely high safety standards, resulting in expensive design costs and numerous redundancy systems.


There have been several notable accidents involving nuclear powe, some of which have killed people. Most famously is the Chernobyl disaster. While the official number of deaths is between 30–50 people, it is believed around 4,000 people will lose their lives due to radiation exposure from the incident. However, according to Forbes, even when you consider these disasters, nuclear still comes out on top as having the lowest mortality rate. Using global electricity generation information, coal results in 100,000 deaths per trillion kWh, natural gas results in 4,000, solar results in 440, and nuclear results in just 90. If you were considering only US electricity generation, nuclear power’s mortality rate is just .1 death per trillion kWh.


Other pros


Another pro of nuclear power is that power plants have long lifespans. Originally given an operating license of 40 years, nuclear power plants can obtain a second 20-year operating license, and several plants are actually approaching 80 years of operation. In contrast, coal and natural gas plants only operate for around 40 years, wind farms are only in operation for 20–25 years, and solar farms have a lifespan of 25 years. You would have to replace alternative energy sources 2–4 times during the lifespan of the average nuclear power plant.


Nuclear power plants also have a relatively small land footprint. The average land footprint of the 59 nuclear plants operating in the US in 2015 was 1.3 square miles per 1,000 MW, which is about 832 acres. According to NREL, a utility-scale solar PV plant takes up about 6.1 acres per MW, and a wind farm takes up 44.7 acres per MW. Therefore, a solar plant or wind farm of the same size would need to be about 6,000 acres and 44,700 acres, respectively. Don’t forget, due to differences in capacity factors, you would need the renewable energy facilities to be 2–5 times larger to equal the electricity output of a nuclear plant


What are the cons of nuclear power?


Costs


Probably the biggest problem with nuclear power is its high costs. Unlike solar and wind energy technologies, whose costs have plummeted over the past decade, nuclear power has become more expensive. As described here, between 2015 to 2020, the LCOE of nuclear power, a metric used to understand the wholistic costs of an energy source, increased by 39% from $117 per MWh to $163 per MWh. Nuclear power is already expensive due to design costs, permitting costs, material costs, and other factors, so this increase is very alarming for advocates.


An MIT analysis examined potential reasons for recent increases in nuclear power construction costs. Their findings suggest construction delays and ballooning costs are due in large part to last-minute re-designs in response to construction site conditions. They suggest smaller plants that could be constructed mostly off-site and incorporate more resilient designs could lower costs and prevent long delays.


Magnitude of potential accidents


Nuclear reactors are designed in a way to utilize the energy produced during the nuclear fission process to generate electricity. Water and control rods are used within the reactor to control the fission process as well as regulate the temperature of the fuel rods. While there are systems in place to ensure public safety, there have been notable instances where things went wrong, most recently the Fukushima accident in 2011.


A nuclear meltdown, which is an imprecise term, can occur when safety systems fail and there is an increased risk of radioactive material escaping into the outside environment. Even with control rods inserted to stop the fission process, the fuel rods remain very hot. If the cooling system fails and leaves the fuel rods dry, they can rust and create hydrogen gas which can create explosions. Additionally, if the fuel rods melt, they become this lava-like material called corium which can burn through the concrete containment vessel of the reactor and eventually into the ambient environment, exposing the world to deadly radiation.


It’s important to note that the Fukushima accident only happened as a result of a tsunami, and a poorly designed safety system with back up generators that were outside and flooded. While another incident is always technically possible, nuclear power plants have increased their safety features over the years to account for potential problems.


Nuclear waste


One of the other concerns about nuclear power is the unresolved problem of nuclear waste. As I described in the last blog, there is remarkably very low volumes of waste produced from nuclear power, especially if you compare to coal. However, due to the radioactive nature of nuclear waste, the waste will be toxic to humans and the environment practically forever. And to make matters worse, there is no permanent storage solution in the United States, with nuclear waste stored in concrete encased containers located on-site.


These containers are extremely safe and nearly indestructible, so there is no immediate reason to worry about the waste problem besides whether we are comfortable producing more of it. Thankfully, Sweden’s permanent storage solution could be promising for the US, and new reactor designs have the potential of producing less waste. Unfortunately, the toxic waste is one problem that nuclear power has not solved.


Other cons


Public awareness and perception of nuclear power is another barrier to its continued success. Environmental groups and other watchdogs have successfully portrayed nuclear power as a threat to the environment, our health, and national security. Nuclear power has seen somewhat increased support in the US in recent years, but in other countries, the public and government have sharply turned against it in favor of renewable energy. To be an effective solution against the climate crisis, companies like TerraPower have promise improved designs and will have to quickly turn the tide of public opinion in many countries.


Another problem with nuclear power is the fact that it is not renewable. Nuclear power relies on mined uranium which is finite in supply. Some estimates say there is an 80-year supply of uranium left based on our current consumption rate, while others claim that with undiscovered uranium, there is enough for over 200 years of nuclear power. That is plenty of time to ramp up or at least maintain our stock of nuclear power plants and sufficiently develop other technologies to solve the climate crisis. However, it makes you wonder how much costs and international tensions could increase as supplies dwindle.


Nuclear power has a role in defeating climate change


In my opinion, nuclear power should play a significant role in decarbonizing our power grid and mitigating the climate crisis. As we continue to electrify our homes, our cars, and our way of life, we will need to significantly increase our electricity generation. When you consider this fact, the amount of electricity that nuclear power plants produce, and the challenges of scaling up renewable energy, you have to admit that we cannot turn our back on nuclear power.


There are reasonable concerns about nuclear waste and increasing capital costs, but when you consider the costs of future climate change, nuclear power is still a valuable source of clean energy. I agree, it is not a panacea, but it should be included in our portfolio of clean energy options. With the window to prevent the worst of climate change closing, we should not rid ourselves of a solution and make solving the climate crisis even more challenging.

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