The 3 Biggest Myths About Nuclear Power
Earlier this year, an enormous confinement structure was completed and commissioned to seal away the highly radioactive ruins of Chernobyl's number four nuclear reactor, a permanent reminder of the awesome – and potentially terrible – power of nuclear energy. More recently, Home Box Office (HBO) broadcast an even more penetrating reminder – the network's television show Chernobyl garnered rave reviews and enthralled a wide audience. Nuclear power has once again been thrust to the forefront of society's collective thoughts.
That makes this a great opportunity to shine the light of evidence on an issue clouded by confusion. For its rare, yet resonating disasters, nuclear energy prompts fear. But is that fear warranted?
Here are three common myths about nuclear power:
Myth #1. Nuclear is dangerous. In the minds of many, the examples of Three Mile Island, Fukushima-Daiichi, and Chernobyl, are enough to cement this statement as fact. But a full and rational examination of nuclear's operational history swiftly dispels this common myth. As a variety of different analyses have shown, even when you factor in nuclear's memorable accidents, it is vastly safer than any fossil fuel energy source. A NASA study in 2013 reported that "nuclear power prevented an average of over 1.8 million net deaths worldwide between 1971-2009" by displacing fossil fuel-based power stations and their associated dangers for miners, workers, and the general public. Nuclear may even be safer than renewable energy sources like wind and solar, as it reduces the need for hazardous mining.
All over the world, for decades, nuclear power has been producing emission-free energy quietly and consistently with vastly fewer ill effects compared to conventional power sources like coal and natural gas.
Myth #2. Nuclear waste is an unsolvable problem. Nuclear energy results in radioactive waste in the form of spent fuel rods – a big drawback. But did you know that coal plants actually produce more radioactive waste during their operation? Currently, more than 90,000 metric tons of nuclear waste (which would fill a football field twenty meters deep) are stored at more than a hundred sites around the United States, a workable but undesirable situation. However, that waste could be safely locked away in Yucca Mountain, a remote site in the Nevada desert situated on federal land. Political maneuvering has kept the site in limbo for decades, however. In the meantime, startups with high-profile backers like Bill Gates are racing to develop new forms of nuclear power that can actually recycle that waste, and there's no technical reason to think that they won't eventually succeed.
With a half-life as long as 24,000 years, nuclear waste may seem like a permanent problem, but it's nothing that we can't handle.
Myth #3. Nuclear is prohibitively expensive. No doubt you've heard or read numerous accounts about nuclear power plants shutting down or even being canceled in the process of construction for being too expensive. It's true, in some locations, the landscape of electricity generation makes nuclear unprofitable, but in most locations, nuclear power is doing just fine.
Nuclear power would truly succeed in a setting where the damaging externalities of fossil fuel power sources are priced in. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimated that a meager carbon price costing the average household only $1 per month could make nuclear competitive nationwide, while vastly reducing air pollution.
Though renewable energy proponents insist that wind and solar are all that is needed to power the future, current reality does not back that assertion. While cheap and growing cheaper, wind and solar are intermittent and thus require some sort of grid storage in order to provide power all the time. Gigantic batteries are the most likely option. But this technology is nowhere near ready yet, presents its own environmental hazards, and will likely be very costly. On the other hand, nuclear could readily provide the baseload power our grid needs to provide electricity around the clock. A 2017 MIT analysis actually shows that pairing nuclear with renewables would be the cheapest way to electrify a clean energy future.