Is nuclear power safe enough to be part of our non-carbon future?

In a scene from the docuseries "Meltdown: Three Mile Island," CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite reports on the pending nuclear disaster in central Pennsylvania that came shockingly close to a "China syndrome" meltdown, and required a 14-year clean-up operation.In a scene from the Netflix docuseries "Meltdown: Three Mile Island," CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite reports on the pending nuclear disaster in central Pennsylvania that came shockingly close to a "China syndrome" meltdown, and required a 14-year clean-up operation. (Image: Moxie Pictures)

As climate scientists continually warn how critical it is to quickly shift away from coal, oil, and natural gas to renewable energy, the question remains, which energy alternative is most viable? Solar- and wind-power naysayers frequently chime about gaps in energy production at night or when the wind dies down, but energy storage is gaining ground as a viable, scalable solution.

The Netflix 4-part docuseries, "Meltdown: Three Mile Island," revisits the deceit and confusion about the 1979 nuclear incident that threatend the U.S. Northeast.

The Netflix 4-part docuseries, “Meltdown: Three Mile Island,” revisits the deceit and confusion about the 1979 nuclear incident that threatened the U.S. Northeast. (Image: Moxie Pictures)

Climate scientists for years have been warning of how an increase of just a half-degree Celsius in the mean global temperature would lead to catastrophic extreme weather events, yet even at a fraction of that rise in recent years extreme droughts, floods, wildfires, and heatwaves now dominate the headlines every week. And the reality is global greenhouse gas emissions likely will reach record levels again this year.

In the meantime, the rush to switch to renewable energy is gaining traction. Wind and solar energy have been cheaper than coal for several years, and the cost of generating power from wind and solar are as much as 9 times cheaper than energy generated by nuclear power, according to the 2019 World Nuclear Industry Status Report.

Yet nuclear proponents maintain it needs to be a major player in clean energy. However, the new Netflix 4-part docuseries, “Meltdown: Three Mile Island,” is a stark reminder of how risky such a reliance can be. The 1979 nuclear incident there came dangerously close to a meltdown that would have endangered millions of people in the U.S. Northeast.

Ironically, the TMI incident began just 12 days after the release of the nuclear-disaster film, “The China Syndrome.”

The high-cost of nuclear power, unpredictable disasters, and ongoing threats

In the popular 1979 film, "The China Syndrome," written by Mike Gray, T.S. Cook, and James Bridges, Jane Fonda (pictured above) plays an intrepid TV reporter working with a nuclear power plant supervisor (Jack Lemon) to uncover the truth about an incident that prompted the plant's shutdown. The film was released just 12 days prior to the real-life near-disaster at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant.

In the popular 1979 film, “The China Syndrome,” written by Mike Gray, T.S. Cook, and James Bridges, Jane Fonda (pictured above) plays an intrepid TV reporter working with a nuclear power plant supervisor (Jack Lemon) to uncover the truth about an incident that prompted the plant’s shutdown. The film was released just 12 days prior to the real-life near-disaster at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. (Image: Columbia Pictures)

The costs related to the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster, damaged in the 2011 tsunami that devastated Japan, continue to mount. The death toll has reached 3,717, and the clean-up of radioactive waste and contamination could be as high as $758 billion dollars, according to an independent assessment cited in the World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2021. While the earthquake risks in Japan are well known, the tsunami threat was under appreciated.

Likewise, the 1,000-square-mile exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine was thought to provide ample security against further radiation leaks, but that changed when Russian troops invaded the country and took control of facility — yet another risk few could have anticipated until recently. And the new era of cyber attacks pose another threat on nuclear infrastructure.

The WNISR 2021 report also notes “since 2009, levelized cost estimates for utility-scale solar dropped by 90 percent, wind by 70 percent, while nuclear increased by 33 percent.” As renewable energy costs continue to decrease, what about storing energy to meet demand when there’s no sun or wind?

Energy storage is improving and expanding

Texas-based Vistra Corp. is proposing to expand its battery projects in California.

Texas-based Vistra Corp. is proposing to expand its battery projects in California. (Photo: Vistra Corp. 2020 Sustainability Report)

Last year the world’s largest battery storage facility expanded and is replacing a natural gas power plant to provide flexible and carbon-free power to California residents. The 1,600 megawatt-hours capacity can provide power to up to 1.2 million homes when power is not available from wind or solar sources.

And as reported May 6 in the CBC podcast Quirks and Quarks, a new thermal-electric device has been developed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that stores energy more efficiently than lithium-ion batteries. The device “creates a pathway for thermal energy grid storage to reach sufficiently high efficiency and sufficiently low cost to enable decarbonization of the electricity grid,” the researchers wrote in their published research in Nature.

Meanwhile, scientists achieved a major milestone in nuclear fusion development earlier this year. Unlike today’s fission reactors, fusion reactors are considered to be “inherently safe,” according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Fusion reactors, however, may be decades away.

On the nuclear fission side, manufacturers are experimenting with new fuels and methods to reduce the risk of “China Syndrome” meltdowns at existing nuclear power plants.

However, given the urgency of the climate emergency and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, the decreasing cost and increasing efficiencies of wind and solar, combined with the growing efficiency of energy storage solutions, the pathway to a growing green economy has well-established low-cost options — a worthy message for your local, state, and Federal representatives.

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