Since it has become trendy to be ‘green,’ talk of reducing greenhouse gases, eliminating carbon emissions, living sustainably, and getting off coal and imported oil has been on the rise among everyone from college professors to hippies for years now. As people continue to acknowledge real concerns about the issues surrounding power generation, the government is taking actions to increase the amount of energy generated from renewable sources.
One source that has been receiving much attention lately is nuclear power. Whether this is truly a renewable energy source is up for debate, and for years the argument against nuclear has revolved around the expensive cost of building nuclear plants, concerns about safety, and the question of how to store the spent nuclear fuel. While most of the country’s nuclear power plants came online in the 70’s and 80’s, President Obama has recently mentioned nuclear power, and even established a commission to develop a long-term nuclear energy strategy and deal with these concerns. This week Obama will announce his plans to follow through with his State of the Union remarks with an additional$36 billion in loan guarantees for the construction of at least one new nuclear plant in Georgia. Site preparation has already begun, and construction approval by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is expected by early 2012.
Nuclear power, unlike coal and natural gas, releases no carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into the air. This is one reason why many pro-nuclear environmentalists are pushing for the construction of new plants, which can cost between $8 and $10 billion, and have a tendency to go over budget. President Obama’s budget could potentially provide for six or seven new plants, enough to provide electricity to millions of homes across the country. Although the up-front cost of nuclear plants is high, they produce electricity that is cheaper than electricity from fossil fuels and the plants are more efficient. There are currently 104 nuclear power plants in the country that produce 20% of the nation’s electricity (source).
The fact that nuclear power involves mining uranium, using hundreds of thousands of gallons of water, and permanently storing spent nuclear fuel probably means that it is not the best way to permanently meet our nation’s energy needs. It takes a decade for nuclear waste to become 1,000 times less radioactive than immediately post-fission, and 500 years for the waste to be less radioactive than the original uranium (source). Realistically, it will take decades to achieve a completely renewable energy portfolio, if it is even possible. Until our grid can completely incorporate wind, geothermal, solar, hydroelectric, and other forms of energy, we need a solution that is less harmful to the planet than mining and burning coal. Perhaps nuclear power is that in-between step.