Column: Why we need more nuclear power in the short term
Nuclear power can provide society with more time to find a better source of energy.
Nov. 10, 2016
The opinions expressed by The Maneater columnists do not represent the opinions of The Maneater editorial board.
Hunter Gilbert is a freshman at MU. He is an opinion columnist that writes about rights and tech for The Maneater.
The Tennessee Valley Authority recently opened a new nuclear reactor in Spring City, Tennessee. This was a 43-year endeavour founded during energy needs in the Cold War. Many are against its opening, especially after what happened at the Fukushima Disaster in 2011. But people are mad for the wrong reasons, nuclear energy has a bad reputation.
Yes, the reactor in Japan failed, but that was due not only to its poor design, having the backup generators on the ground floor, but also to the fact that it was hit with an earthquake and a tsunami. After Chernobyl and the Three Mile Island incident, nuclear reactors have an awful reputation, but with carbon levels unlikely to ever drop it is time to consider some compromises when it comes to energy production.
The argument is not that more nuclear power plants are the solution, but rather that nuclear power plants provide society with more time to find a better alternative. Until other means of energy production are able to produce energy consistently on a large scale, the answer lies in the atom.
Nuclear power not only has an incredibly low operating cost but it also provides a far safer environment to work in compared to gas or coal-powered plants. Although they have high initial production and development costs, the outcome is far easier to settle with considering what gas or coal-powered plants do to our air. The methane released from just mining coal — not even burning it — accounts for ten percent of the methane released yearly.
Nuclear power is not perfect. Disasters are possible if poor maintenance occurs, and nuclear waste and its storage are an important issue. Two thousand metric tons of nuclear waste are produced annually, but these yields are produced from reactors made with decades-old technology, reactors that utilize normal helium-water cooling. A pair of Massachussetts Institute of Technology scientists discovered a way not only to reduce the amount of waste but also utilize it as fuel for clean energy.
With current reactor implementation in the U.S., roughly 97 percent of potential power from fuel rods is wasted; they simply are not efficient enough. The idea of using nuclear power isn’t the problem, the implementation of it is. Molten salt reactors are nuclear reactors that use molten fluoride salt as coolant. This is something that was around but not widely discussed when the majority of the reactors in the U.S. were constructed. Reactors with molten salt as coolant are far superior at cooling rods and therefore utilizing more potential power.
The Waste Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor, designed by the pair of MIT scientists, is capable of using up to 98 percent of a fuel rod. Ultimately, the reactor will be able generate 500 megawatts of power. They will also be able to use rods that have previously been deemed spent and are now in stockpiles. In other words, the reactors would be able to use some of the waste from previous reactors as fuel while still being powered to a degree by thorium. Thorium is one of two radioactive elements that can be found in nature in large quantities, the other being uranium.
An increase in nuclear power would be a stellar compromise to burning foreign fuels and coal. If society could simply set aside the stigma around nuclear power and quit relying on and waiting for some potential new energy that does not exist yet, then society as a whole can further combat the pollution going into the air. We have known about this source of energy for quite a while, yet we refuse to further our understanding and implementation of it out of fear. At the same time, we fear for the state of the world in the next 100 years. We need to fear less and act more. Nuclear power isn’t the perfect answer, but it can certainly buy humankind more time until we figure out the answer to the energy crisis.