By Astrid Popovici
Often, when people talk about sources of energy, they compare fossil fuels and renewable energy, such as solar and wind power. However, many people fail to consider a third choice: nuclear power.
Nuclear power plants split radioactive uranium atoms in a process called fission, which releases energy. This energy is used to heat up water into steam, which spins a turbine to generate electricity.
Unlike fossil fuels, nuclear power plants don’t pollute the atmosphere or release CO2. Nuclear plants also take up significantly less space than solar panels or windmills—for the same amount of energy generated, solar needs 75 times more land than nuclear, and wind needs 300 times more.
Nuclear power plants have a more reliable and consistent output than solar panels or wind farms, which depend on the weather and time of day. Variable energy sources often require batteries, the mass production of which poses its own environmental problems.
And barring accidents, nuclear plants are less disruptive to ecosystems than wind or water energy.
Nuclear power does have its downsides. There’s always the risk of accidents like Chernobyl, but Chernobyl would never have happened without the enormous corruption and mismanagement of the Soviet Union. Even though nuclear accidents are terrifying in theory, nuclear power is safer than other energy sources in practice. It has a death rate of only .04 deaths per Twh (terawatt hour), compared to 168 for coal (mostly due to air pollution) and .44 for rooftop solar. And nuclear power is also getting safer and better as technology improves.
Storing nuclear waste is another key issue. And in foreign countries that don’t yet have nuclear weapons, nuclear power can be used as a stepping stone to acquiring them.
But choosing energy sources will always be a balancing act, with tradeoffs. For example, when environmentalist activists shut down nuclear plants in the 1970s, many of them were replaced with coal.
All in all, nuclear proves a solid source of energy, and it deserves a fair hearing at debates over how we will power our future.