Opinion: The Risky Reality of Going Green

Ida Echeverria

The effects of climate change are growing exponentially, with harrowing affects. Initiatives are being taken, yet no matter how many wind turbines and solar panels are installed, there is still not enough power being generated.

If the United States wants to reach zero carbon emissions by 2050, then the current development of renewable energy is alarmingly behind.

What can generate the power needed with zero carbon emissions? Nuclear energy.

Nuclear energy is the breakdown of atoms through various different processes to generate electricity. While efficient and carbon free, it is infamous for its hazardous waste and potentially dangerous radioactivity.

nuclear photo bash 2.jpg
Some love nuclear energy. Some hate it. Caught in the middle, is the ongoing debate of how to address climate change. Photo credit: Ida Echeverria

A 2016 Gallup poll found that most Americans were opposed to nuclear energy. Often cited were the growing concerns of radiation, disposing of nuclear waste and the possibility for human error. These concerns are entirely reasonable. The planet does not need another Chernobyl scale catastrophe, to be reminded of the risks.

Yet, many climate scientists argue that if the United States wants to reach a goal of zero emissions by 2050, it would be impossible without nuclear energy.

The U. S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) released a 2019 report and found that at current development, renewables like solar and wind power, accounted for only 17.1% of the total expenditure. Despite renewables being more affordable, accessible and advanced than ever before, the numbers are not ideal. A good question to ask is: if renewables are more cost-effective, why isn’t the percentage higher?

The answer is multifaceted, though many obstacles still remain.

Despite its recent breakthroughs, solar remains less reliable than carbon. Nor is it affordable for a sizable amount of the country. For the U.S. to generate all of its needed electricity from solar or wind, would require a complete infrastructural overhaul that would significantly impact everyday American lives. Is it technically possible? Yes. It is practical? No.

Nuclear’s key advantage over solar and wind power is that the technology boomed much earlier. With the benefit of several decades worth of innovation, nuclear energy today has become increasingly safer, reliable and efficient.

Embed from Getty Images

Yet, these statistics mean very little unless enacted into policy, which is where the main difficulties lie.

Public perception and staunch protests have put nuclear’s fate in limbo. Local governments are now faced with an uncomfortable dilemma. Many nuclear plants in the U.S. are in need of major upgrades that are slow to come, posing a potential threat to public safety.

Some would argue that these continual needs for upgrades are too expensive and impractical, driving up the supposed high costs of nuclear. However, nuclear receives only a portion of government subsidies that renewables get on a regular basis.

In 2015, the International Energy Agency (IEA) released a 112-page report detailing a variety of ways that countries can lessen overhead costs. Not to mention that large scale investments towards nuclear energy often bring down the unit costs to produce electricity.

It may seem easy to dismiss these as high level bureaucratic problems, but public opinion has a significant sway on the future of nuclear energy.

As green energy has risen and become a hot issue within politics, there needs to be a revitalization of nuclear innovation. Rather than sentence nuclear energy to a technology of the past, why not bring it forward with the rise of wind and solar?

Some, like Presidential candidate Andrew Yang, have advocated improving current technologies by using thorium to power reactors, which produces less nuclear waste than uranium.

Other candidates, like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, have proposed “weaning ourselves off of nuclear energy” by 2035. While this sounds like a reasonable compromise, it would require deploying renewables at a rate significantly higher than currently done.

The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station located off Interstate 5, was permanently closed in June of 2013 by Southern California Edison. Photo credit: Maureen Grimaldo

Replacing nuclear for renewables seems like an obvious choice. However, that is easier said than done. After the closing of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in 2012, natural gas was used to offset the power lost by the plant, which saw an increase in emissions.

Until renewable technologies can be implemented on a mass scale, there is no realistic way to transition away from fossil fuels without the use of nuclear energy.

It’s fine to be cautious. Though to say we can combat climate change without nuclear energy, is living within a fantasy.