Should We Pursue Nuclear Energy?

Nuclear energy , like any other form of energy, has advantages and disadvantages. Do the pros outweigh the cons?

Our knowledge of the workings of atoms and the subatomic particles that make up those atoms marked a significant breakthrough in our understanding of the universe. It also allowed a leap forward in technology, which led to power plants that generate lots of electricity.

Energy that is generated from nuclear reactions has one primary advantage: no carbon emissions are produced. Most of the world’s energy currently comes from burning fossil fuels, which releases carbon into the air. That carbon is now threatening us all in the form of climate change.

Time is growing short to find an alternative form of energy, one that does not pump billions of tons of carbon into the air each year. Nuclear energy is one such possible alternative. (As are solar, wind, geothermal, hydroelectric, and others.)

Listen to a podcast where Michael and Lee discuss the related question: ‘Is technology neutral?’ We also discuss a bonus question: ‘Freedom or security?’

The drawbacks to nuclear power are, primarily, two-fold.

First, nuclear plants produce radioactive waste, and no one has come up with a satisfactory plan for its disposal. That waste will last for hundreds of years. The current strategy for dealing with it is to put it somewhere that seems to be geologically stable, and far from any human civilizations.

The second danger comes from accidents that produce radioactive fallout. We’ve seen this play out most recently in Japan in 2011, when a tsunami destroyed a nuclear power plant. As a result, radioactive material was released into the surrounding air and ocean.

We have an energy problem. To live a lifestyle that is common in a first world country is energy intensive, and the energy demands of the human population across the world are expected to increase for the foreseeable future. No combination of alternate energy sources can meet our current needs, let alone larger ones.

Should we explore all possibilities, including nuclear? Or are the risks associated too great — even greater than those posed by climate change? Should we pursue nuclear energy?

Related questions: What is keeping us from sustaining the planet? What is the greatest problem facing humanity? How is climate change impacting you?


4 thoughts on “Should We Pursue Nuclear Energy?”

  1. No. We should not pursue nuclear energy.

    Let’s be clear. While the centralized and privately-controlled energy interests of fossil fuels and nuclear energy wield significant political power, promoting their industries as able to meet our current and future energy needs (which is highly-questionable), they also put up barriers to the full unleashing of innovation and the use of decentralized power sources. The context for this question lists some of those more renewable approaches our state and federal governments should be incentivizing and, yes, subsidizing directly. Why? Because we are already supporting the unsustainable energy approaches by paying for the externalities of our current, dominant energy paths through partial mitigation of climate change occurring by way of our addiction to fossil fuels and attempting to find ways to transport and store nuclear waste safely.

    Wouldn’t it be better to subsidize and harness energy production that does not contribute to climate change and doesn’t pose significant safety risks when something goes wrong? Harnessing solar, wind, geothermal, tidal, and ocean current energy are amongst the most commonly-identified renewable approaches we should promote.

    While the renewable approaches may, in the long-term, produce enough energy and at least some could be brought to scale within a much shorter timeframe with more significant government incentivizing and direct subsidization, we would be wise to reduce our reliance on non-renewable sources immediately. Free public transit and subsidizing passive capture of solar energy in home and office design are just two of many techniques we could employ right now.

    Should we pursue nuclear energy? Absolutely not! There are too many safer and cheaper options at our disposal.

  2. I think we should pursue nuclear energy. I understand that it is harmful, and produces deadly radioactive waste.

    However, the real prize is nuclear fusion.

    Today’s nuclear energy plants employ fission, or breaking apart big atoms (primarily uranium) into smaller pieces, a process that releases energy. The smaller pieces are the radioactive waste.

    Nuclear fusion derives energy from fusing two small atoms into a larger one, and it has the advantage of not producing any radioactive waste at all. A controlled nuclear fusion reaction has never been sustained on our planet, but if it can be, that would be a true game changer.

    So why pursue nuclear (fission) energy? I suspect that working with fissile materials will eventually lead to making fusion possible — it already works that way in uncontrolled nuclear reactions (that is, atomic bombs). And as a side benefit, it would allow for transitioning away from carbon-releasing fossil fuels. It would join with the renewable energy sources, which are all important and should all be pursued.

    (Of course, I am not a nuclear engineer, so I don’t really know any details of this process. I could be convinced otherwise by someone who knows more about it than me.)

    Yes, there are significant risks involved with current nuclear energy, but there are risks involved with every energy source. With each one, you learn to minimize the risks while maximizing the benefits.

  3. I agree that fusion is the better alternative. But thinking about this reminds me that our energy sources are only part of how human activities are affecting problematic changes in ecology, changing habitats. One of The Great Courses called “Earth at the Crossroads” by Professor Eric G. Strauss goes into detail about this.

  4. If it weren’t for dangerously radioactive waste and all the human errors that cause accidents (anybody see recent reports saying many nuclear plant parts are defective or counterfeit? —, I might say yes, but not with those facts in mind. Also, I agree very much with Michael: there are alternatives and if we subsidized them like we subsidize all of the fossil fuel economy, they’d surely be competitive and do less long-term harm.

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