Thursday, February 11, 2016

Guest Post: Is Nuclear Energy Crucial for Clean Air?

[Clean Air Watch periodically publishes guest posts that we think are of general interest. Today's post on nuclear power by guest blogger Beth Laurel is controversial, to say the least.  Even though the Clean Power Plan has been stalled by the U.S. Supreme Court, the issue remains relevant. Clean Air Watch would entertain contrary views on this volatile subject.]

Nuclear Energy: Crucial for Clean Air

As greenhouse gas emissions further accelerate the effects of global climate change, our continued reliance on fossil fuels becomes increasingly problematic. 

Discussion of clean and sustainable energy sources generally focuses on the utility of solar and wind, such as with media coverage of Elon Musk’s SolarCity and Google’s investment in wind farms in Africa. Often notably absent, however, is a mention of nuclear power - a reliable, clean source of energy that already contributes nearly 20 percent annually to US energy consumption.

The new Clean Power Plan -- stalled this week by the Supreme Court, but still on the books -- sets goals for reducing US dependence on fossil fuels and increasing research and funding for developing a low or zero carbon grid based entirely on renewable energy sources. But any credible effort to reduce carbon emissions must include nuclear power – a controversial but consistent and renewable source of clean energy.

What Is Nuclear Power?

In a nuclear power plant, heat generated by the fission, or splitting of uranium atoms, converts water into steam which powers turbines to generate electricity. Nuclear reactors work around the clock, and the power they produce is carbon free and renewable.

However, well publicized disasters at nuclear power plants such as Chernobyl and Fukushima point up the hazards of producing energy from highly radioactive materials with a long half-life in soil, water and air. Older reactors and those in areas vulnerable to earthquakes and other disasters can pose a very real threat to the very environment that clean energy efforts are trying to protect.

Still, proponents of nuclear energy as part of the mix of renewable resources point out that properly maintained nuclear power plants are cleaner and pose less of a threat to biodiversity than wind and solar energy production.

Solar and Wind Have Limitations

Solar and wind are the darlings of the clean energy movement, and with some good reasons. These natural sources of power are renewable, pose no threat to the environment and are available everywhere on the planet. But they have their limitations.

Currently, wind power contributes 4 to 5 percent to US annual energy production, while solar contributes less than one percent. But for a zero carbon grid, those numbers would have to rise considerably, and that requires the production and installation of many solar panel arrays and turbine fields, as well as storage units.

That construction in itself could mean more carbon emissions, and claim large amounts of land and water. The destruction of marine and land habitats could pose a real threat to biodiversity and place many species at risk.

Though solar and wind power may be renewable, they aren’t always predictable. On overcast or calm days, power generation drops, which calls for reserve storage. But nuclear power is reliably available no matter what conditions prevail, with a smaller land requirement and less threat to vulnerable habitats. However, this isn’t to say that wind and solar aren’t useful. They still produce less greenhouse gas emissions than traditional coal and oil and are a major component in our clean energy efforts. Thankfully we are seeing a rise in these renewables with about 13 percent of the United State’s electricity generated from these sustainable resources, according to Alberta Energy.

Build New Plants – or Keep Old Ones?

Many existing nuclear power plants have been in operation for 30 years or more. These older plants may be vulnerable to accidents, or simply not up to the task of producing power in quantities needed for a full zero carbon grid. Upgrading them, or building new ones, could create new, though likely temporary, sources of carbon emissions as well.

But owners of existing nuclear power plants claim that these venerable producers can remain viable for 80 years or more - capable of making a major contribution to clean energy plans and reducing the demand for new plant construction. Closing down existing plants in favor of new construction could also deprive some areas of a major source of power.

Currently, the majority of US energy is derived from nonrenewable fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas. Making the switch to clean, environmentally friendly renewable energy sources requires a mix of solar, wind, and the forgotten workhorse of carbon free energy – nuclear power. 

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