Sep 2, 2022

Should we embrace nuclear energy?

Should we embrace nuclear energy?
Photo by Dan Meyers / Unsplash

The risks, upside, and future.

I’m Ari Weitzman, tagging in for Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: An independent, ad-free, non-partisan politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from the right and left on the big debates of the day.

When you think of controversial topics in American politics, you probably consider the big ones: Abortion, gun control, immigration, and LGBTQ issues all come to mind.

But in the space around climate change, in which legislators, environmentalists and scientists debate how to de-carbon our future, the topic of nuclear energy has become one of the most divisive issues there is.

We've written extensively about climate change over the past year — in current events, in law, and even in scientific theory.

When we covered the UN’s report on climate change, Isaac mentioned his opinion that there is no net-zero carbon future that doesn’t include nuclear energy. This spurred some feedback from our readers, most of it negative. In a subsequent edition, we mentioned the polarizing nature of this statement, and teased the possibility of a full edition on nuclear energy. And you responded in droves with papers, articles, and opinions about whether we should be embracing nuclear energy or not.

The issue has been in the news, too. As recently as yesterday, California legislators voted to extend the life of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, suspending a plan to wind it down. In Germany, legislators just did a policy U-turn of their own, deciding to keep three nuclear power plants open as they brace for an energy shortage in response to and in anticipation of throttled natural gas supply from Russia this winter.

In the U.S. the data reflects this division, with 38% of Republicans and 55% of Democrats opposing nuclear energy; but the government believes in it. Last year, the Department of Energy invested $61 million into advanced nuclear R&D.

Today, we’re going to explore this divide, looking at the benefits and drawbacks of nuclear energy. Why is it politically relevant now? What does current research tell us about the future of nuclear power? What are the biggest problems preventing it from being a part of our climate future, if it should be at all?

We’re going to get into some scientific theory, as well as some pretty thorny risk assessment involving human lives and the environment, and will give brief summaries of nuclear disasters that can take hours — if not days — to fully explain. For this reason, today’s piece is heavily sourced, and we encourage you to dive deeper on your own, think critically, and let us know where you land.

At the very least, you should leave today’s newsletter with a much better understanding of the debate at hand, and a much clearer idea of the wide variety of questions that need to be resolved for nuclear energy to be a viable part of our solution to address climate change.

Why nuclear energy?

The UN spurred a lot of conversation about climate action when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its 2021 Report. We covered some of that discussion, and have written in-depth about climate change, and the upshot is clear: We have to reduce our carbon emissions, fast. The IPCC has set the goal of limiting warming to 1.5°C to avoid the worst effects of climate change, which the White House estimates “will require cutting global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to at least 40% below 1990 levels by 2030.”

75% of global carbon emissions come from energy and industry, with roughly 40% from burning coal, 30% from oil, and 20% from natural gas. The United States is the second highest emitter of carbon from coal, and the highest emitter from oil and natural gas, making us responsible for roughly 10% of global emissions on our own (second only to China). To cut back on emissions, the White House is proposing a strategy that largely features a ramp-up in renewable energies, while diminishing our reliance on fossil fuels and implementing carbon capture and storage (CCS) at high-emitting power plants, as depicted in the chart below.

Long Term Strategy of the United States,

What stands out to me when reading the projections for energy sources is not just the large extent to which the Biden administration is investing in renewable energy and carbon capture and storage, but how — without letting it become a focal point of the government’s plan — the government is planning to slowly increase its investment in nuclear energy.

If you’re familiar with the risks involved, this might be jarring information. 47% of Americans oppose nuclear energy, primarily citing the notorious failures in Chernobyl and Fukushima among the reasons why. Before we get into the risks of nuclear energy, though, it’s important to understand the upsides that could lead the government into furthering our nation’s reliance on it. And before we do that, we should give a brief primer on how nuclear power works.

What is nuclear energy?

Unsurprisingly, this process is not simple. But we’re going to do our best to explain it in the most basic terms possible, so bear with us (it’s important for later, I promise).

At a very basic level, all the energy we get from fossil fuels comes from the chemical energy contained in the bonds between chemical compounds. Nuclear energy is contained in the bonds between the subatomic particles of an atom, and is orders of magnitude more energy dense. This energy can be released when atoms are joined together (fusion) or when they are broken apart (fission). All existing nuclear power comes from fission.

Heavier atoms are more fissile, meaning they are more prone to breaking. When a heavy fissile atom is struck with a neutron, it can form an unstable isotope and break (or fission) into two other elements, releasing both massive amounts of energy and more neutrons that can carry on the fission process by hitting other heavy atoms. Nuclear reactors operate by choosing the right elements to fission, moderating the speed of the neutrons resulting from fission, containing the fission byproducts, and harnessing the energy released from the reaction.