How Should We Manage Nuclear Energy?
Chernobyl. Three Mile Island. Fukushima. There has been some big nuclear accidents over the past few decades, but how dangerous is nuclear power really? The energy from nuclear power is not a chemical reaction. It’s a nuclear reaction. Chemical reactions involve the electrons in an atom. Nuclear reactions involve the nucleus in an atom. The waste that nuclear power produces in the US was about 2200 metric tons per year, equivalent to 323 male African elephants. That was a weight comparison. Nuclear waste is much denser than an elephant, and so it takes up much less room. Concern over global warming has increased the appeal of nuclear power, which does not produce the high levels of greenhouse gases that come from fossil fuels. But there has been a persistent tendency to ignore the toughest questions posed by nuclear power: What should be done with the waste? What are the consequences of a catastrophic accident in a populated area? How safe are the plants, really? Why would taxpayers have to shoulder so much of the financial risk of expanding the nation’s nuclear power capacity, an effort that would be wildly expensive? A big part of the problem at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power station are the highly radioactive spent fuel rods kept in storage pools at the plant. What to do, ultimately, with such dangerous waste material is the nuclear power question without an answer. Nuclear advocates and public officials don’t talk about it much. Denial is the default position when it comes to nuclear waste. Credit: Gimlet Media, The New York Times.
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