Last week, the Alligator printed a story regarding a group of concerned citizens who were opposed to the construction of a new nuclear power plant in Levy County.
The article quoted former Gainesville mayor Tom Bussing saying that the plant would be “an environmental disaster.” As a nuclear engineering student, reading that statement shocked me and revealed to me that a factual and comprehensive conversation is needed about the merits and disadvantages of nuclear energy in our community.
To begin, it is important to understand that energy is an issue that affects us all; the energy we use when we flip a light switch on has to come from somewhere. The brilliance of engineering has allowed us to harness the energy we find on Earth and transform it into forms we can use in our everyday lives. The greatest issue with energy today is how to reconcile affordable energy with environmental stewardship.
Affordability is important because energy has become an indispensable part of our lives; having high energy prices can cripple a struggling household or slow the overall economic growth in our state and in our country.
Along with affordability is a concept known to energy engineers as the capacity factor, or the percentage of the time a specific form of energy is available for use. An energy source that has a capacity factor of 30 percent is like having a car that starts only about 30 percent of the time. Together, the capacity factor and the costs of transforming the energy determine how affordable our energy is.
The greatest tool to compare energy sources is the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s annual report.
The immediate conclusion I drew from the data presented was that no energy source is perfect.
Cheap and reliable energies usually come at heavier environmental impacts. Pure, renewable, clean energies — like wind, solar and geothermal — tend to be expensive, unreliable and rare.
The argument for nuclear energy comes from the fact that it is a carbon-dioxide-emission-free energy source. Nuclear is a clean-air energy that is designed to release only steam into the atmosphere. Nuclear energy is also cheap and competitive and allows us to power our homes without breaking the piggy bank, while boasting a 90 percent capacity factor — one of the highest among the readily available power sources.
Nuclear fuel is also extremely energy-dense, maximizing the amount of fuel created from the amount of material given — an incredible asset to its environmental benefits. According to the Energy Information Center website, nuclear waste is so dense that if you piled all of the used fuel generated from all of the power plants in the United States in the past 60 years, we could fit it all on a football field.
Used nuclear fuel and facilities are kept safe, controlled and regulated by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which enforces strict safety standards for all nuclear facilities and keeps them running like new yearlong. The agency ensures that nuclear facilities are complying with all environmental standards, keeping our resources clean and safeguarded before any plant can operate.
All things considered, nuclear energy supports environmental stewardship and affordable energy. It gives us the ability to power our homes without emitting harmful gases into the air while safely controlling the used fuel by-product.
Instead of fighting new initiatives for nuclear energy, we should focus on solving the real problems that prevent us from taking full use of the environmental benefits nuclear energy brings. Problems such as the political issues behind creating a nuclear fuel repository to safely house our waste and changing the policy that prevents recycling of used nuclear fuel should be our main concerns to address the environmental issues surrounding nuclear energy.
There is no clear answer to what the perfect energy source is for us right now.
If there is anything to take away from the data I have presented, it is that it’s important to keep a strong mix of energy sources to maintain affordability and promote environmental stewardship.
When analyzing the availability of our energy, it is important to consider the playing field and what is at stake, make pragmatic decisions, and not allow our good intentions to lead us down the wrong path for lack of knowledge or perspective.
Diego Garcia is a UF nuclear engineering senior. He is the president of UF’s student chapter of the American Nuclear Society. He also serves as a student contributing expert to the Energy Information Center. You can contact him via [email protected].