In recent years, global superpowers have taken the initiative of developing and integrating nuclear power into their national energy strategies. Notably, the US, France, China, and Russia have taken lead roles in amassing their nuclear capacities while even Canada has joined the pack with 18 operational nuclear energy units in 2019.
While oil and gas continue to direct the global energy industry, world leaders and public representatives are largely coming out in favour of cleaner and more renewable sources of energy. Though the typical examples of alternative energy focus on solar, wind, and hydro, nuclear energy is heavily regarded as one of the cleanest and least disruptive sources of energy. Although the US Department of Energy has outlined the numerous advantages of adopting nuclear energy as a prime source, a negative stigma surrounds the nuclear industry due to destructive accidents from the past. Namely, the Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima disasters are often referred to as the worst case scenario of nuclear activity which can potentially cost thousands of lives and billions of dollars in damages.
If constructed, maintained, and secured properly, nuclear power has by far the highest potential of all the clean energy sources to accommodate the exponentially increasing global demand for energy.
Among the established sources of clean energy, nuclear has by far the smallest land footprint. Wind and solar energy take advantage of nature’s unreliable forces and thus depend on maximized surface area coverage for the most energy production. In contrast, nuclear plants require very small plots of land in comparison to perform its condensed application of atomic fission. For instance, a typical 1,000-megawatt nuclear plant would require about 1 square mile to operate. Wind farms would require 360 times the space and solar plants would require 75 times the space.
The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) recorded that nuclear energy in the US bypassed a potential of over 476 million metric tons of carbon emissions in 2019. Because the process of nuclear fission has virtually no input other than neutron particles, the process has no harmful emissions and the only gaseous by-product is pure steam. However, there is still harmful waste from nuclear fission that will remain for hundreds of thousands of years after use. Even still, with so many engineers collaborating on effective and safe storage methods for this waste, it has simply become a part of the process. Because of these storage capabilities, radioactive waste from nuclear plants have been minimized to a negligible extent.
Having said this, the ‘waste’ produced from nuclear fission often actually contains extremely valuable resources which can be reprocessed and recycled to be further used as nuclear fuel and applied to industrial use in the fields of technology, chemistry, and even space exploration. Despite these extremely favourable benefits of recycling and reprocessing radioactive material, the US and Canada have both prohibited the practice for perceived economic barriers as well as a fear of misuse and proliferation of the substance.
Contrarily, countries like France, Slovakia, and Ukraine have modernized their approach to nuclear energy, allowing for and encouraging the recycling and reprocessing of nuclear waste. Because of this step they have taken, the majority of each respective nation’s energy comes from a nuclear source, with France’s nuclear energy sector accounting for over 70% of its usage.
The reality is that with times changing and alternative energy sources amassing demand worldwide, the US and Canada must take initiative in emerging sectors as not to be left in the dwindling past of oil, coal, and gas. With wind and solar methods still not fully economically suitable, nuclear energy stands as the source with the most potential, especially considering the ever growing global population and demand for energy.
If governments are serious about alternative energy, nuclear power is the only source that can rival the massive capacity and potential of the fossil fuels currently being used. The science is supportive and with public calls for environmental sustainability, nuclear energy is the only feasible option to sustain and accommodate our modern world.