Bilinovich: The threat is not nuclear energy, but fossil fuels

Beau Bilinovich, Staff Columnist

Electricity is all around us. It powers our household appliances, our TVs, our computers and our phones. Of course, this electricity has to come from somewhere. For many, that “somewhere” is a fossil fuel power plant, such as coal plants. For others, the electricity could be produced in the reactors of large nuclear power plant stations. Or maybe you opt for solar panels, which convert the sun’s light energy into the electricity that sustains our daily lives.

Either way, this electricity has to be produced somewhere. This then raises the question: where should our electricity come from?

Answering this question requires a thorough and careful analysis of the costs and benefits of each energy source, and the knowledge of what’s at stake. After all, the threat of global climate change and environmental degradation should concern us all.

One fact remains certain, no matter how you address the situation: fossil fuels are unsustainable and pose immense risks to the environment and our own lives. Alternative sources of energy—nuclear, solar, wind, hydroelectric—do not come close in comparison to the damage that fossil fuels cause every second they are in use.

For one, the byproducts of fossil fuel production, such as air pollution, are constant health risks. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution on average causes 4.2 million premature deaths each year. These deaths are due to various health complications, such as heart disease and lung cancer, which can be caused and exacerbated by air pollution. WHO further determined that 29% of all deaths from lung cancer, 24% of all deaths from strokes, 25% of all deaths from heart disease, 17% of all deaths from respiratory infections and 43% of all deaths from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are caused by air pollution.

This is not just a concern for countries with inadequate pollution control standards; this problem also affects the U.S. The National Academy of Sciences estimates that around 100,000 people die annually in the U.S. due to air pollution. 

On top of the health risks, fossil fuels also are a threat to the environment. Recent data from NASA show that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are around 415 parts per million, which have increased by 47% since 1850. As a greenhouse gas, astronomical levels of carbon dioxide play a major role in global climate change, which not only culminates in rising temperatures but also more extreme weather events, such as hurricanes and droughts. This trend will continue until greener, carbon-free alternatives are adopted.

But if we don’t use fossil fuels for our power, then what else can we rely on? There are a few options at our disposal.

Nuclear energy, for all its controversy, is a likely candidate. It produces no carbon dioxide emissions or air pollution, already ranking it far ahead of fossil fuels. Moreover, nuclear energy has a much higher capacity factor than any other form of energy, including renewable energy.

Capacity factor is the percentage of time that a power plant is actually producing energy. Nuclear energy has a capacity factor of around 92%, meaning that nuclear power plants are producing energy 92% of the time they are in operation.

That being said, replacing fossil fuels with nuclear energy isn’t without its fair share of concerns. Many people will understandably point to the Chernobyl and Fukushima incidents as proof that nuclear energy is far too dangerous. Without a doubt, nuclear meltdowns should definitely be factored into decisions regarding the future of this energy source; however, there is less risk than one might initially think.

The Chernobyl disaster could easily have been prevented. It was a human-made disaster—a product of Soviet government negligence and a fatal national ego. Soviet officials repeatedly denied claims that there was even an accident, and when they were forced to finally reveal their hand, they downplayed the severity of the situation.Fukushima, too, could have been avoided had the plant operators and regulators seriously considered the risks of tsunamis to the power supply that cooled the reactors.

Unfortunately, there is one downside to nuclear energy: nuclear waste. There are currently no disposal facilities for high-level nuclear waste, nor can the U.S. reprocess such waste to be used again. Hundreds of thousands of tons of waste is scattered across the globe, a health hazard that can stick around for thousands of years.

Nevertheless, nuclear energy is considerably safer than fossil fuel burning. In fact, nuclear energy might have prevented 1.8 million deaths that would have resulted from air pollution as well as 64 gigatonnes of CO2 emissions.

Of course, the viability of nuclear energy does not mean that renewable energy should be ignored. These energy sources, such as solar and wind, are entirely carbon-free and incredibly safe. Solar energy, for example, is estimated to cause 99.97% fewer deaths from accidents and air pollution per terawatt hour of production than fossil fuels cause.

That said, even renewable energies can still produce waste. Solar energy, in particular, uses chemicals such as hydrofluoric acid, an environmental hazard. But again, this type of waste is far easier to manage compared to the toxic pollutants and greenhouse gases generated by burning fossil fuels.

Let’s revisit the initial question: where should our energy come from? Fossil fuels are an immense threat to our daily lives. Millions of people die because of fossil fuels every year, and at the same time our environment and atmosphere are continuously contaminated by the byproducts of fossil fuels. We simply cannot keep fossil fuels around if we wish to keep both ourselves and our planet healthy. 

While there are certainly going to be challenges ahead, the transition to nuclear and renewable energy would lead to a brighter and cleaner future. It’s time to make the switch.