Science Notes

What Role Will Nuclear Energy Play in Deep Decarbonization?

By Mikkela Blanton

March 2021

As the world explores solutions to the climate crisis, various energy solutions are under consideration. While nuclear energy has earned a bad reputation following three major nuclear disasters and a history of disproportionate negative effects on BIPOC communities, it offers one big, undisputed benefit: nuclear energy is a zero-emission clean energy source.

NuScale’s Small Modular Nuclear Reactor. The small size means that it can be shipped by truck and factory-built. Photo courtesy of Forbes.

What Are the Advantages of Nuclear Energy?

Nuclear energy is the largest source of clean power in the United States, and it is produced with zero direct carbon emissions.  

Not only is nuclear energy “clean,” it is also a reliable energy source, as nuclear reactors can run 24 hours a day. Compare this to solar power, which ceases when the sun goes down, or wind power, which isn’t accessible when the wind isn’t blowing. Unlike a coal plant that needs to be refueled continuously, “fuel” for a nuclear reactor only needs to be restocked about once every 18 months. 

Major organizations, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the United Nations, have held that increasing nuclear energy production is necessary to meet emission-reduction goals. 

Challenges & Controversy

Hear the phrase “nuclear energy” and the catastrophe at Chernobyl may come to mind. Or for Coloradans, nuclear may trigger memories of Rocky Flats, which is now a Superfund site. In short, public perception of nuclear energy is often negative. One study found that “respondents continue to strongly associate civilian nuclear energy with military nuclear imagery,” including mushroom clouds and bombs. 

Public perception doesn’t have it all wrong – nuclear reactors can be dangerous, and there are complications associated with the transportation, storage, and disposal of nuclear waste. Radioactive waste can be harmful for both human and environmental health. Exposure to radioactive waste can cause cancer, cardiovascular disease, and other long-term and acute health effects. 

Additionally, uranium mining is historically dangerous for workers and nearby communities, as uranium decay leads to the release of radon, a radioactive element. There is also a long history of uranium mining and associated risks disproportionately impacting low-income communities and communities of color; from the 1940s through the 1980s, 4 million tons of uranium ore were extracted and 500 abandoned uranium mines were left in native Navajo territories, resulting in a drastic rise in reported cases of disease, including lung cancer.

The process of mining uranium also isn’t carbon neutral. 

Finally, another challenge with increasing nuclear energy production is that building reactors can be complicated and logistically challenging; there are strict regulations on everything from operator training, to plant inspections, to maintenance. 

What Will the Future of Nuclear Energy Look Like? 

Nuclear energy is changing. New technologies challenge the current nuclear power plant model and make promises of improvements to safety. So will nuclear have a role in deep decarbonization

In a discussion with Good Energy Collective Founder Jessica Lovering, hosted by the Institute for Science and Policy, Lovering made it clear that nuclear energy is not growing fast enough to meet aggressive climate targets. While there has been bipartisan support for nuclear energy in the past half-decade, this support has been concentrated on research and development (R&D); now, said Lovering, it’s time for movement around “shovels in the ground,” referring to support for demonstration builds and mechanisms for deployment, such as tax credits and loan guarantees. 

Cognizant of the sullied history of nuclear energy related to disastrous explosions, and inequities and racism pertaining to things like testing and waste disposal, Lovering said that investing in the social sciences is just as important as investing in R&D. These two elements should be integrated and evolve alongside one another in order to address things like risk perception, public engagement and communications, and social justice, she said. Today, nuclear is reimagining itself in a more socially friendly way. For now, it looks like nuclear energy is not only here to stay, but will likely expand significantly as advanced nuclear technologies, including reactors that are safer, smaller, use a variety of different coolants, and have simpler designs that lower construction costs, get off the ground.


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