The Latest Stats on Climate Change Prove We Need Nuclear Power Right Now
Despite its stigma, nuclear energy may be the most powerful, least costly method of powering the future. And if you've been paying attention to what we're doing to our planet, you know we need to embrace clean energy as soon as possible.
Want proof? New data shows that 2015 is, so far, the hottest year in the recorded history of Earth.
Consider this chart, based on information released by the National Centers for Environmental Information, which compares the warmest days on record between 1998 and today. If the year lines were heights on a police lineup, 1998 through 2014 would be a high school basketball team and 2015 would be Kevin Durant.
Carbon dioxide emissions contribute to global warming. To dispute that in 2015 is paleolithic. A lot of those emissions come from fossil fuel-burning power plants, the bread and butter of most developed nations' energy sources. Research into renewable energy sources is moving along quickly, expanding funding and research into sky and sea, but there's a powerful natural resource we're neglecting and for no good reason: nuclear power.
The case for nuclear power: It's simple: Fossil fuels need to go.
At the rate we're going, we'll kill the planet before we actually run out of fossil fuels. Based on fossil fuel reserve and consumption data from the CIA, we may run out of fossil fuels by 2088. And while some studies say the concern about ever really running out of harvestable fuel sources is far-fetched, drilling into the ground to access unconventional fuel sources will probably beat the hell out of the planet and the atmosphere, thanks to a jump in the byproducts that come with more intense drilling. Most apparent are the earthquakes caused by hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking."
Nuclear power is a powerful and renewable resource, and it's what we should be using to power our everyday lives.
According to Staffan Qvist, a physicist at Uppsala University in Sweden, nuclear energy could supplant coal and gas by 2045, finally launching the planet into the modern era of energy.
"Any climate-neutral source producing energy today is effectively displacing the burning of fossil fuels," Qvist told Mic. His study, published in the journal PLOS One, explains his work in greater detail. "If we are serious about tackling emissions and climate change, no climate-neutral source should be ignored."
More than half of Sweden's electricity comes from nuclear power. In France, that number jumps to 80 percent.
So why haven't we in the United States switched energy sources to a nuclear-power majority already? We've owned the Lego blocks of a nuclear revolution for decades, the pieces to greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and even stop global warming in its ice-cap-melting tracks. We should already be in the nuclear age.
Initially reasonable, but currently unnecessary, fear of nuclear power leaves us swimming in a diminishing pool of dinosaur bones instead of soaring through technological advancements like Iron Man with a tricked out Arc Reactor.
Civilization isn't on the cusp of some Hunger Games dystopia in which our hubris has caused global atomic calamity. But people still think it is.
In 1986, the Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine exploded due to a flawed reactor design. It killed 30 plant workers and responding firemen over the course of a few months due to radiation poisoning, and caused the resettling of 116,000 people living within roughly 18 miles of the plant site.
Twenty-five years later, in 2011, a massive tsunami knocked out the power of three reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant in Japan, causing the evacuation of more than 100,000 people from the area.
Neither instance had the impact of an atomic or hydrogen bomb. But just the marriage of the words "nuclear" and "accident" is enough to make an uninformed society high-tail out of any conversation about an expanded nuclear footprint. And that's why it isn't progressing as fast as possible.
The big misconception about nuclear power: A nuclear reactor's job is to harvest the energy released by the nucleus of a heavy atom splitting. According to Arjun Makhijani at the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, for nuclear power to be used as a bomb, it needs to be almost completely fissile material. Power plants, on the other hand, have a very small amount of fissile material — as in, just a few percent.
That means, even if someone hijacked a nuclear power plant, the destruction they'd be able to cause would be closer to the sub-100 deaths of Chernobyl — not the 80,000 of Hiroshima in World War II.
"In the public's mind, the word 'nuclear' itself creates challenges, as it tends to trigger a general misunderstanding of radiation and the dangers it creates," Jim Hopson, a representative of the electric utility company Tennessee Valley Authority, told Mic. "The nuclear power industry has not [been] very successful in combating these misperceptions."
Overwhelmingly, nuclear power shows promise as a means of weaning the U.S. off its coal-fired plant habit, saving lives in the meantime.
Why we should get behind nuclear energy, and who already does: According to a paper by Pushker Kharecha and James Hansen of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia University Earth Institute, the greenhouse gas emissions avoided by nuclear power prevented an estimated 1.84 million air-pollution-related deaths that would otherwise have been lost due to fossil-fuel burning.
"A sustainable, future global energy system without fossil fuels will ideally consist of a combination of several different low-emission energy sources," Qvist told Mic. "If we take away nuclear from that equation, it becomes very difficult to solve. ... Looking at historic data, the only countries that successfully decarbonized their electricity grids in a relative[ly] short amount of time did so through nuclear."
Nuclear energy can be used for any application that needs electricity. But it could also be used for powering vehicles via hydrogen fuel cells, powering desalination plants and generating radioisotopes for medical purposes. Nuclear power is the hemp or coconut oil of the energy universe; you can use it for everything. And we need it more than ever.