The Truth About Clean Energy

The recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has reopened the debate about the best way to extract energy in an environmentally responsible manner. However, the response to this spill has reinforced a regrettable, yet pervasive, myth. The climate-change debate is often portrayed as a battle between man and nature, in which only one side can come out ahead. But an examination of the technological options for energy production tells us that this is not the case.

Ideally, the clean-energy debate would be a purely scientific one—the science of the atmosphere and of energy production is one that can be quantified and studied dispassionately and objectively. Unfortunately, the science tends to get lost in the political noise. In general, Republicans tend to dismiss the effects of climate change or at least believe they are less important than the enormous economic costs of changing energy sources; Democrats tend to put a huge emphasis on stemming climate-change effects, up to and including making sometimes questionable technological decisions.

In fact, there is one win-win solution for everyone, a way to mass produce clean electricity, continue to grow our economy, and sharply reduce greenhouse emissions all at the same time, and it may surprise you: nuclear energy.

Nuclear power is a tailor-made solution to the climate change and energy problems. It is extremely clean, produces enormous amounts of electricity in a very small footprint, and is economically competitive with other forms of electricity. Additionally, uranium resources are abundant compared with other fuels (it could be mined from seawater, for example).

It is very hard to peg the exact costs of any given form of electricity due to the difficulty of estimating the environmental costs of carbon emissions, but depending on how one tabulates carbon-emission costs and subsidies for solar and wind, nuclear energy is either about equivalent in cost or significantly cheaper than any other form of energy.

Furthermore, nuclear energy is immeasurably cleaner than burning coal, oil, or natural gas; the carbon emissions from the entire nuclear-energy cycle about equal that of a wind or hydroelectric plant. Nuclear plants even emit less radioactivity than coal plants, since there are natural radioactive materials mixed in with the coal, which are vented into the air. The footprint of a nuclear plant is miniscule compared to the hundreds of windmills required to generate the electrical output of a single reactor. Nuclear plants also avoid the highly toxic chemicals used in solar-panel production, and again, a single reactor can generate more electricity than many square miles of solar panels exposed to constant sunlight. And the nuclear plant can do this in any weather and around the clock.

It is sometimes said by nuclear’s opponents that the “nuclear waste” problem makes nuclear energy dangerous even today, but this is simply untrue. There is no “nuclear-waste problem.” “Nuclear waste” is an ideological bogeyman, a catch-all phrase used to justify technical rejection of nuclear energy on grounds that are, in fact, purely political. As far as the technology goes, the United States Navy, France, Japan, and others have been safely storing and reprocessing nuclear waste for over half a century. It cannot harm people without passing through a series of steps that can be shown quantitatively to be essentially impossible. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has made this situation more complicated by closing, for entirely political reasons, a planned nuclear-waste repository on which billions have been spent.

For historical reasons, opinion on nuclear energy has become divided along party lines, an unnecessary political judgment on what should be a simple and clear technical question. There is no real ideological reason for this; nuclear energy is not innately conservative or liberal. It is merely a tool that has gained a very unfortunate political labeling. Fortunately, the global-warming crisis has started to remove some of the more emotional opposition to nuclear power, and the question has become somewhat less partisan over the last several years.

A careful combination of nuclear energy for so-called “base load” electricity, plus wind and solar for “peak” generation, would allow an infrastructure that combines nearly zero greenhouse emissions and zero limits on available energy.  And if there is no environmental harm, then energy, in itself, is extraordinarily good. It is directly and very closely correlated with growth in gross domestic product, life expectancy, and quality-of-life measures. It is desirable and essential to human progress; it is what separates us from the Middle Ages.

Nuclear electricity offers both the prospect of using existing and well-understood technology to allow a halt to environmental damage caused by dirty carbon fuels and the prospect of a future of more energy, opportunity, technology, economic growth, and scientific progress. The benefits of clean energy are thus too great to ignore.

Daniel A. Handlin ’11 is an astrophysics concentrator in Winthrop House.


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