The Nuclear Debate
Happy Friday everyone!
Today's issue is bittersweet– we are so excited and proud to be wrapping up our first six months of ClimateRoots (can you believe it!) but that also means we are at the end of our focus on renewable energy here in the education section. We hope over the past few months, you have become better informed (and dare we say… familiar) with the mechanics and nuances of the energy sector in the United States. Our goal at ClimateRoots is to make climate science easily digestible and accessible and after 6 months, we would love your feedback!
If you read last week's piece (check it out here if you missed it) you'll know that nuclear power is a low carbon energy source that has been used in the United States for about 80 years. However, those 80 years have been far from smooth sailing. There has been intense debate about the use of nuclear energy in the United States since its inception, and in today's issue, we will be discussing some of the major points of contention surrounding nuclear energy, and fleshing out where popular opinion stands as we head into 2022.
One of the largest points of contention surrounding nuclear power is that it produces radioactive waste. Radioactivity is caused by an unstable atom whose nucleus releases energy through radiation in order to move back to a stable state (ARPANSA). Nuclear waste is the byproduct of the nuclear reactors, and can be categorized as either high level or low level (“Backgrounder on Radioactive Waste”). High level waste is primarily uranium (the fuel for nuclear reactors) that has been used and can no longer produce electricity. Because Uranium atoms split during nuclear fission, “isotopes of lighter elements such as cesium-137 and strontium-90 [are created]. These isotopes, called ‘fission products,’ account for most of the heat and penetrating radiation in high-level waste.” (“Backgrounder on Radioactive Waste”).
What makes this waste such a problem is that the half life (aka decay rate) of these radioactive isotopes varies, from 30 years to 24,000 years which presents an issue for storage, since there is currently no permanent method for storing nuclear waste. If directly exposed, high level wastes are hazardous to humans and the environment, leading to intense opposition from citizens and environmental groups alike (10 Reasons to Oppose Nuclear Energy | Green America). Until we discover a way to safely store this radioactive waste or dispose of it permanently, this issue will continue to plague the nuclear power sector.
Power Plant Safety:
The safety of nuclear power plants has been a huge concern for the American public, though the degree that it matters seems to swing generationally. Following the tragic Chernobyl accident in 1986, which resulted in 30 fatalities and 4000 thyroid cancer cases (Chernobyl | Chernobyl Accident | Chernobyl Disaster - World Nuclear Association) public opinion shifted toward skepticism and hate and there were anti-nuclear demonstrations in countries around the world (Blix). According to a June 1986 Gallup poll, 73% of Americans were against nuclear energy, a significant jump from the 45% against nuclear energy in their 1976 poll (Inc, “Gallup Vault”). However, recent studies have found that Americans are almost evenly split when it comes to nuclear safety concerns, with 47% believing the nuclear power plants are safe, and 49% saying they are unsafe (Inc, “40 Years After Three Mile Island, Americans Split on Nuclear Power”).
Competition with Renewables:
As we discussed in last week's issue, though nuclear power is often part of the renewable energy conversation, it is technically a non-renewable energy. Nuclear power relies on the mining of precious materials like Uranium, which is not only an extractive process, but the type of Uranium used in nuclear fission is incredible rare, and therefore not renewable (Non-Renewable Energy | National Geographic Society). Some environmental groups, politicians, and even regular Americans, are anti-nuclear because they see investments in nuclear energy as money that should be invested into renewable energy (Plumer et al.) However others believe that there is more than enough room for both to accommodate our ever growing need for electricity, and that nuclear in particular will be essential for our transition off of fossil fuels and into a renewable dominant energy system (“New Energy Outlook 2021 | BloombergNEF | Bloomberg Finance LP”).
The nuclear debate in the United States is a complicated, multigenerational issue that we have barely scratched the surface of in today's ClimateRoots– but we believe it is important to give you an idea of some of the points commonly discussed. As of 2019, Americans are almost completely divided on nuclear power - with 49% supporting use and 49% opposing (Inc, “40 Years After Three Mile Island, Americans Split on Nuclear Power”). With a majority of nuclear power plants aging out, where Americans stand on nuclear power over the next ten years will become a larger factor of our ever evolving energy sector. We are at the crossroads in history where nuclear will either be invested in, or will begin to disappear as an energy source meaning that education on the topic is as important as ever! Again, thank you so much for sticking with us through these first few months of ClimateRoots, we have had such a blast learning with you all. Please take our survey here so we can know what you want to learn about in 2022.
Happy new year! The ClimateRoots team
10 Reasons to Oppose Nuclear Energy | Green America. https://www.greenamerica.org/fight-dirty-energy/amazon-build-cleaner-cloud/10-reasons-oppose-nuclear-energy. Accessed 15 Dec. 2021.
“Backgrounder on Radioactive Waste.” NRC Web, https://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/fact-sheets/radwaste.html. Accessed 15 Dec. 2021.
Blix, Dr Hans. “The Post-Chernobyl Outlook for Nuclear Power.” IAEA BULLETIN, 1986, p. 4.
Chernobyl | Chernobyl Accident | Chernobyl Disaster - World Nuclear Association. https://world-nuclear.org/information-library/safety-and-security/safety-of-plants/chernobyl-accident.aspx. Accessed 15 Dec. 2021.
Inc, Gallup. “40 Years After Three Mile Island, Americans Split on Nuclear Power.” Gallup.Com, 27 Mar. 2019, https://news.gallup.com/poll/248048/years-three-mile-island-americans-split-nuclear-power.aspx.
---. “Gallup Vault: Nuclear Power Plant Fears After Chernobyl.” Gallup.Com, 26 Apr. 2016, https://news.gallup.com/vault/191099/gallup-vault-nuclear-power-plant-fears-chernobyl.aspx.
“New Energy Outlook 2021 | BloombergNEF | Bloomberg Finance LP.” BloombergNEF, https://about.bnef.com/new-energy-outlook/. Accessed 16 Dec. 2021.
Non-Renewable Energy | National Geographic Society. https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/non-renewable-energy/. Accessed 16 Dec. 2021.
Plumer, Brad, et al. “Environmentalists and Nuclear Power? It’s Complicated.” The New York Times, 18 Apr. 2018. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/18/climate/climate-fwd-green-nuclear.html.
“Radioactivity.” ARPANSA, ARPANSA, 26 Apr. 2017,