(Opinions) Energy

Byron Nichols, senior associate and director of utilities at the Virginia Tech Power Plant stands inside the facility before giving a tour on Feb. 10th, 2015.

The world is running out of time to address climate change. As the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC ) report stated, to fully address climate change we will need to decrease CO2 emissions by at least 45% of 2010 levels by the year 2030. The goal is extremely ambitious, only giving us 11 years to completely transform the world economic juggernaut and wean modern society off of fossil fuels.

Many environmentalists point to renewable energy solutions for this problem. Wind, solar and hydroelectric power, and to a lesser extent geothermal and wave power, tend to be their favorite sources of energy. And for good reason, energy from the sun strikes the earth continuously at orders of a magnitude more than our society currently uses or will ever use. As well as the core of the earth always being hot and able to produce abundant electricity.

However, there is a catch to the buzz around renewable energy. The sun does not always shine, nor does the wind always blow. Hydroelectric dams reroute rivers and can drastically disrupt fragile ecosystems. This is not to say that renewables do not have a place in the energy production system. They are important parts of the system that may save us from our own energy needs. However, it is obvious that these are not going to be enough to power the world and continue to improve the standard of living for humanity’s ever-growing population.

It is then that one source of power stands out. It is abundant, readily available and extremely safe: nuclear energy.

The very word “nuclear” conjures up images of mushroom clouds and apocalyptic events. For dozens of years, anti-nuclear activists have espoused the dangers of this energy source. Three accidents in past years: Three-mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima still hang heavy in the public mind. Despite the fact that both the Fukushima and Three-mile Island accidents killed no one, and the residents surrounding the disaster area had no higher instances of cancer than the general public. Chernobyl killed 44 people, but it pales in comparison to the thousands of people that coal power kills every single year in the United States alone due to air pollution. Moreover, NASA conducted a study in which it estimates that the use of Nuclear energy saved nearly 1.8 million lives between 1971 and 2009. 

Radiation is measured in the unit millirems. Many people have fears about radiation causing cancer, and while it is true that in relatively large doses, radiation can cause phenomena such as acute radiation sickness or increased rates of cancer in populations exposed to high levels of it. People are naturally exposed to radiation, as it comes from background sources in the environment, as well as from other sources such as the sun as well as medical imaging technology. Living within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant, a person would receive about one one hundredth of one millirem per year, whereas an x-ray would expose someone to about 6 millirems. Yet no one fears getting x-rays or sitting in front of a television or computer screen or the countless other examples of everyday, mundane devices in our lives that expose us to radiation that we do not fear at all. 

While many people fear a meltdown on the scale that was seen at Chernobyl, new types of reactors that are being demonstrated make the possibility of a meltdown nearly impossible. Although Murphy’s law exists, the chances of an actual meltdown coming from these new reactors are infinitesimally small.

Attending a school with an active nuclear engineering program, as well as one that at one time operated a nuclear reactor, its necessary to educate those of the realities of the times we live in. The bottom line is that climate change is the biggest challenge facing humanity. As the world population increases, the demand for energy resources will only continue to grow. Currently, we are on course for ecological collapse. We have very few years to reverse course, and to do so will require humanity’s global cooperation to end our dependence on fossil fuels and to make the conversion to clean sources of energy. And as our time ticks away slowly but surely, it seems that nuclear energy will be our only way out.


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