Last week, the Kleinman Center hosted Dr. Katherine Smith, a Senior Technology and Market Assessor for gemaker, Pty Ltd., a science and technology marketing company , who has twice held posts as a nuclear science and technology attaché for the Australian Government, for a lecture on “Why Some Nations Choose Nuclear.” But, as Dr. Smith laid out a comprehensive background on nuclear energy around the world, one question that could be asked is why not nuclear? The benefits of decreased air pollution certainly make nuclear energy an enticing option.
Nuclear energy is a zero carbon energy source that packs a serious energy punch. As Dr. Smith noted in her lecture, just 1 kg of uranium is equivalent to 3,000 tons of coal in energy output, but with no CO2 emissions. No emissions means lessened impact on the climate and on public health. Air pollution from the energy sector is a major problem across the world and a switch to more nuclear and clean energy would be a big step to improving air quality. Especially in low income and minority communities, which are disproportionately impacted by emissions from fossil fuel generation.
One drawback to nuclear is expense. Dr. Smith explained that nuclear plants are very expensive to build—averaging $9 billion per unit. In 2012, the United States spent over $131 billion in health costs from air pollution from the energy sector. Traditional fossil fuels add sulphur oxide (SOx), nitrogen oxide (NOx), and particulate matter into the air, threatening the health of neighboring communities. Nuclear can be seen as an investment worth making in favor of a stable climate and cleaner breathable air.
But what about catastrophic nuclear events? As Dr. Smith described, the significant nuclear events, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukishima, led to few casualties. Even considering the illnesses suffered as a result of the radiation from these events, the impact is still not as great as the millions who die every year because they lack safe and breathable air. Emissions from fossil fuel based energy generation can cause or exacerbate heart and pulmonary conditions. Every year around the world, over 5.5 million people die due to air pollution related illnesses. While nuclear may lead to few high-profile immediate catastrophes, fossil fuels are waging a long, drawn out assault on public health.
Nuclear is far from a perfect energy source. Dr. Smith’s lecture discussed nuclear proliferation and waste storage, which are two problems without an easy solution. But in a world not yet able to support a fully renewable grid, nuclear can be a more appealing choice than fossil fuels. Across the globe, health costs are rising and lives are lost due to poor air quality. While nuclear energy certainty poses risks, it can also help alleviate the pollution that plagues millions of people worldwide.
Additional Reading: The Kleinman Center recently released a report, Nuclear Decommissioning: Paying More for Greater, Uncompensated Risks, which explores the new costs and risks of nuclear decommissioning.