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The Dartmouth
February 26, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Jackson: Our Friend the Atom

Nuclear energy could save us from climate change, if only we’d use it.

Climate change has been a hot button issue for decades now, and the surrounding fervor has even grown in recent years. Politicians continue to make it an issue on the campaign trail, while scientists search for solutions to what may be the greatest looming threat to humanity in the coming decades. 

Most proposed plans for combating climate change focus their efforts on alternative energy sources to harmful fossil fuels, which power a vast majority of the world’s infrastructure. These plans most commonly tout solar, wind and hydro power. However, while often ignored, nuclear energy is possibly the best tool we have for making a switch away from fossil fuels. If we want to switch from fossil fuels and begin halting — then reversing — the damage we’ve done to our planet, nuclear energy is the hero we need.

Nuclear energy remains the best bet that we have for combating climate change for quite a few reasons. Though the upfront costs for constructing reactors is high, the energy they produce is cost-effective. Additionally, it’s massively scalable — the effort it takes to power a large city with nuclear power is far smaller than constructing solar panels to create the same amount of energy. 

Unlike fossil fuels, nuclear energy does not create the same toxic pollutants that have brought us to the climate crisis thus far. There is also an added benefit to nuclear energy in the form of job creation. Unlike many other forms of clean energy, nuclear power would be able to provide those new jobs at higher wages for people with multiple different skill sets. Lawyers, electricians, engineers and many other types of workers will benefit from jobs created by nuclear power.

But if nuclear energy has all of these benefits, then why hasn’t it been widely adopted? There are two camps of nuclear detractors who, despite having different motivations, have worked together to prevent it from being as effective as it could be.

The first camp is the fossil fuel companies themselves, who have a vested interest in preventing competing energy sources from gaining prominence. To this end, they’ve made moves to keep the cost of developing new nuclear projects high by lobbying to ensure they don’t get access to the same subsidies from state governments which other forms of energy enjoy. Major fossil fuel companies have also lobbied to end nuclear projects in key areas — further preventing a switch to nuclear power.

The other opponent of nuclear energy, however, are those who would typically never align themselves with the fossil fuel industry. Average citizens, many of whom are climate activists, have spearheaded the movement against nuclear energy. From the outset, it’s easy to see why — the popular image of nuclear energy consists of glowing, green radioactive waste and core meltdowns. But those images are widely false. Nuclear energy is incredibly safe, as disasters are highly uncommon, and the amount of waste created is low. Despite having existed for decades, there have been less than 10 high-profile reactor accidents since the creation of nuclear power. Compare this to the amount of air pollution and high rates of carbon dioxide that fossil fuels have created, not to mention the untenable level of damage they do to our planet every day. Despite this, nuclear energy has fallen victim to an undue public relations nightmare that has long prevented the public from embracing it as our best bet to combat climate change.

Climate activists have argued one other counterpoint against nuclear energy: as a result of its byproducts, it can’t be considered truly “clean” energy. The objective of moving towards clean energy is to implement sources that don’t emit the harmful pollutants that fossil fuels do, and getting bogged down in what really “counts” as clean energy doesn’t move us toward that goal.

Global warming’s negative effect on our climate could be greatly slowed — if not outright stopped — if nuclear energy was more widely adopted in place of fossil fuels, even when counting the effects of having to dispose of waste. Considering that its output is far more efficient than alternative methods of energy generation outside of fossil fuels, it should be the backbone of the push for cleaner energy, rather than standing on the periphery. Despite criticisms, nuclear energy has only gotten more efficient. And with the successful creation of self-sustaining nuclear fusion — where a nuclear fusion reaction gives off enough energy to heat the fuel mass more rapidly than it cools — nuclear energy will only get cleaner and cheaper.

The fight against climate change will likely be humanity’s greatest battle. It is a question of whether our desire for profit will prevent us from preserving our home and our species. Winning this fight will require quick, decisive action. If we want to achieve this, we’ll need a source of energy that can keep up with the demands of our modern, energy-fueled world without breaking the bank. The best fuel to meet both of those needs is nuclear power, which continues to make innovations in safety, efficiency and cost. Nuclear power is the tool we’ve been waiting for — if only we can overcome our fear of using it.

Opinion articles represent the views of their author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.