What happened to nuclear energy?

The source of energy once promised to the rid the earth of air-borne pollutants — while providing cheap fuel for an indefinite period of time — lost support from both the public and private spheres. Is our current skepticism toward nuclear fission justified? Or are we ignoring what may be the solution to the global energy crisis?

A nuclear energy renaissance was not long ago, as in the early 2010s support for nuclear power had expanded across the world. However, in the wake of Fukushima, plans to construct nuclear power plants were abandoned in almost every country. Earthquakes such as the one which caused the 2011 Japanese tsunami are a fact of life, and it may not be possible to construct an entirely quake-proof power plant.

Yet, the damage to Fukushima in 2011 occurred mostly because of a tsunami, not an earthquake. Furthermore, certain areas of the world experience significantly less seismic activity than others. For example, building nuclear reactors in the east coast of the United States is, on the whole, safe from these types of geological events. Nonetheless, the rapid increase in hydraulic fracturing may be triggering earthquakes in previously geologically placid areas.

Even given the rare — yet potentially catastrophic — risks of fission reactors, nuclear power may be significantly safer than fossil fuels in the long run. So, why does the public have so much fear towards an economically and environmentally viable fuel? Part of the reason could be miscommunication between scientists and the public. Nuclear power has been represented as a dangerous fuel for decades, and the media has fomented resentment towards the energy source in society. Perhaps scientists who support nuclear power need to communicate with the public directly, and to explain that nuclear plants are not as dangerous as the public opinion implies.

Carbon-free and cheap nuclear fission without accidents still presents a currently unsolved dilemma: the storing of nuclear waste. As of now, we currently enclose nuclear waste in materials that will hold them for potentially thousands of years, and bury these materials deep within the earth. Do we trust these methods for protecting us from the nuclear waste? Is the consequence for these casings cracking — thereby leaking the waste into groundwater — too dire to justify the risks? We do not have any economical clean alternatives at this moment. Perhaps storing nuclear waste is a small price to pay for a clean atmosphere.

While our nation is not currently pushing the construction of new reactors, nuclear research has experienced its own renaissance in recent years. New types of reactors are under development, some of which may alleviate the drawbacks of contemporary nuclear plants. For example, pebble bed and traveling wave reactors may ameliorate safety concerns surrounding 20th century reactor designs.

And then there are Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). While nuclear power provides cheap energy over a long period of time — due to the high energy density of the fuel — the startup cost of building a full sized plant is too high for most companies to shell out. SMRs are smaller reactors that can be built for a significantly smaller up-front cost than traditional nuclear power plants. While still in development, these reactors could be implemented across the country for a relatively low construction cost, each providing cheap energy to neighborhoods rather than cities. But such technology raises another concern: do we truly wish to have a small nuclear reactor as a neighbor?

Nuclear power remains a very difficult subject. The general disregard of nuclear power as a dangerous and infeasible source of power seems to be misguided, and nuclear energy — particularly with the advent of modern reactor designs — is a solution worth serious consideration. As scientists, we must communicate the true complexities of nuclear power to the populace so that we, the citizens, can rationally decide if it is time to make amends with the all-powerful atom.