I’m starting this What If thought experiment with a What Is. Specifically, what is the current breakdown of US electricity generation by source, amount, and share? Glad you asked:
My immediate take-away is that nuclear energy is still doing a lot of heavy lifting and the contribution of renewables is rather minor. Now consider:
The United States currently has 60 commercially operating nuclear power plants in 30 states.
The Nuclear Energy Institute says wind farms require 360 times more land area to produce the same amount of electricity and solar photovoltaic plants require 75 times more space.
Wind and solar plants harm local ecosystems and wildlife.
The 1000 square mile “exclusion zone” around the Chernobyl power facility is now a thriving wildlife refuge that hosts great biodiversity.
Modern nuclear reactors are much safer than old Soviet reactors like those at Chernobyl.
What if we built 60 more nuclear power plants in the US, each with a precautionary 100 square mile exclusion zone around it, e.g., 10 x 10 miles? To produce a comparable amount of electricity, you’d need over 20,000 more average-sized wind and solar farms (each one wildlife-unfriendly).
Sixty more nuclear power plants would double US nuclear electricity generation and create 60 new wildlife sanctuaries.
The amount of land off-limits due to nuclear waste is tiny: according to one estimate, all of the used nuclear fuel produced in the US over the last 60 years could fit on a football field at a depth of less than 10 yards. Even if it were 10 football fields, that’s not much land taken out of bio-circulation.
By increasing nuclear, we could retire coal plants faster. And air pollution from US coal kills thousands every single year.
A recent study estimated that 15,000 people die in the US every year due to particulate matter air pollution from electricity generation alone. That’s three times the estimated death toll from nuclear and radiation accidents over the past 66 years.
Nuclear power does not produce particulate matter.
Do the math: 6,000 square miles of land plus, say, 10 football fields worth of nuclear waste scattered within the 3.8 million square miles that is the United States of America. Seems a minimal price to pay to make faster progress on the climate change mitigation front, protecting carbon-absorbing ecosystems and saving thousands of human lives in the process. Ironically, activists who advocate immediate action and economy-busting measures to avert the imminent “existential threat” of climate change are fairly unified in their opposition to nuclear power.
Something to think about.
* How I arrived at this figure: Undisputed death counts from 26 nuclear and radiation accidents: 126, then I added 4,874 deaths to include the disputed counts in other accidents to bring the total to an even 5,000. The disputed counts were: Chernobyl (UN proposed 45 total confirmed deaths from the accident as of 2008 and the World Health Organization suggested in 2006 that cancer deaths could reach 4,000); Kyshtym disaster (per a 2009 study, up to 55) Windscale fire (UK government estimates at least 33) and Fukushima (none from radiation effects, no increases yet detected in pregnancy-related conditions or cancer rates).
References and Links:
Goodkind, A. L., C. W. Tessum, et al. (2019). "Fine-scale damage estimates of particulate matter air pollution reveal opportunities for location-specific mitigation of emissions." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116(18): 8775-8780. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1816102116
“Chernobyl has become a refuge for wildlife 33 years after the nuclear accident” by Germán Orizaola/ PRI May 13, 2019