Fight against climate change must go nuclear

Carl Karouta

Every few weeks another article promises some groundbreaking new idea to finally end climate change. Let’s capture carbon dioxide emissions and store them in the ground. Let’s fertilize the ocean with carbon dioxide-consuming organisms.

These and a deluge of other incredibly creative propositions are also incredibly costly and inefficient. They band-aid atmospheric problems instead of actually cutting emissions. Yet, thanks to media fearmongering and fossil fuel money, humanity struggles to appropriately embrace a truly revolutionary technology it acquired 65 years ago: nuclear power.

Unlike nuclear energy, the more creative ideas involve extraordinary costs in transporting and distributing large amounts of minerals or mass-producing bioengineered cells. These resources are much more efficiently allocated for successfully developing and implementing nuclear power.

Better yet, nuclear energy is profitable. Few private entities will sacrifice their own profit margins for the sake of the environment, so a factory investing in costly carbon capture is unrealistic. On the other hand, private entities will invest (and have invested) in energy they can sell, and splitting atomic nuclei provides unfathomable amounts of energy.

This is not to say that carbon capture and ocean fertilization are hopeless. More research may very well render them viable in the future. At the same time, nuclear energy isn’t flawless. Synapse Energy Economics projects that building a nuclear power plant would cost a company anywhere between $6 and $9 billion for each 1,100-megawatt plant.

Fortunately, the cost will decrease as long as research advances. Then, the incentive to build plants will increase, and more data from these plants will accrue. This, in turn, will allow for further optimization to drive down costs. Physics professor Rory Coker believes that efficiency will rise dramatically with additional development.

“Very little money has been spent in the USA on efforts to improve the technology of nuclear power,” Coker said. “Other developed countries are far, far ahead of us.”

Additionally, the industry must work toward standardizing equipment and processes, which will increase efficiencies and decrease costs. It is also critical that scientists and engineers inform the public that nuclear energy is a safe and efficient source. Then, the reduction of stigma will save costs on redundant safety measures.

Coker asserts that media coverage of nuclear power plants causes undue alarm solely because they normally are so safe.

“Their safety record is excellent and therefore boring to the news media,” Coker said. “So about the only coverage nuclear power plants get is in terms of ‘accidents,’ which are generally sensationalized beyond recognition.” 

As long as nuclear power reminds people of Chernobyl and Fukushima, the stigma will exist. It’s absurd to those familiar with the science, but one cannot blame society for its fear. 2017 marks a century since Ernest Rutherford first split the atom. That century was turbulent, unpredictable and, without a doubt, anxiety-inducing.

Together, humanity can progress past its mistakes and learn to embrace a technology that can now shape the future into one of prosperity. And it must.

Karouta is a chemical engineering freshman from Plano.