Editorial: Embracing nuclear power


The ISD Editorial Board explains how nuclear power works and argues the United States should embrace this type of power as an alternative to wasteful energy sources such as coal or fossil fuels. 

Editorial Board

When you hear the word “nuclear,” what comes to your mind first? Is it the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan and the end of World War II? Maybe you think of the historic meltdown at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and the resulting exclusion zone around Pripyat, Ukraine. Or, maybe you think of a clean, powerful energy source.

For many people, the difference between thinking of a disaster or a future energy source is simply not understanding nuclear power plants.

Nuclear power plants work no different than coal- or gas-powered plants. In either plant, water is superheated into a vapor that drives a turbine, which turns a generator and creates electricity. The only difference is that instead of burning coal or gas to heat the water, nuclear power plants use radioactive materials like uranium. These materials decay quickly, releasing large amounts of heat, which is used to heat the water into steam.

During this process, the radioactive material is not released into the environment. It is sealed in the reactor core. The steam that is used to drive the turbine and generator is also contained within the plant. At no time do either of these materials come into contact with each other. Every care is taken to ensure nuclear power plants aren’t leaking radiation into the environment.

The radioactive materials used in nuclear power plants are not the same materials used in nuclear weapons. You cannot make a bomb with the uranium in a power plant. It simply won’t blow up. Nuclear power plants do not pose a risk to the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Consider a bomb made of uranium and a power plant that uses uranium as an energy source. While both use uranium, their enrichment levels differ greatly. Enrichment refers to the percentage of each isotope of uranium found in a specific mass. Uranium comes in two varieties: U238 and the highly radioactive U235. In order to make a bomb, you need a critical mass of U235. Nuclear power plants use uranium enriched to 3 to 5 percent while weapons use uranium enriched to over 90 percent U235

The technology used to enrich uranium is the real secret to making an atomic bomb. Even if someone got their hands on nuclear fuel, after enriching it to weapons grade, they wouldn’t have enough to sustain a nuclear reaction.

Radiation is dangerous. Unfortunately, everything is radioactive. Fortunately, nuclear waste is only disposed of once it reaches safe levels of radioactivity. To ensure this, nuclear fuel is only removed from the reactor once it has been depleted as an energy source. Then, it is sealed and left to decrease in radioactivity for 50 years before being transported to one of five sites in the United States that handles nuclear waste where it is permanently sealed below ground.

These sites generally seal and bury the waste tens of meters below ground, but the United States also has a disposal site for highly radioactive waste, where it is sealed and buried thousands of meters below ground. Current sites are adequate, but if nuclear power does become even more popular, the United States does have even better methods of disposing of nuclear waste as well as the knowledge to construct more of these sites.

Nuclear power plants are safe. The disasters that took place at Chernobyl, Fukushima and Three Mile Island were in no way the results of being nuclear power plants. Each failed for its own list of reasons, all of which were the result of poor human decisions and errors.

In a way, these events make it clear that the safety of a system isn’t just in the engineering of it but also in its execution. It’s important to study these failures and to try to implement new solutions so those mistakes can’t be repeated, and thus, neither can those catastrophes.

Perhaps the opportunity to study will be here soon enough. During the final days of his presidency, Donald Trump issued an executive order aimed at developing small nuclear reactors for defense and space exploration purposes. This is a great first step toward implementing nuclear power as a major contributor to U.S. energy production. 

Many of the technologies we take for granted today are the direct descendants of purposeful research and development in Department of Defense labs. Small, modular nuclear reactors could be one of those technologies.

Powering a country with electricity is difficult because there’s no great way to store it. As a result, power must be produced when it’s needed. So when everyone gets off of work and turns on their TVs or washing machines or ovens or water heaters, more power is needed.

Wind and solar power are great, but you can’t force the wind or sun to match the power needs of the population. But you can supplement the green energy sources with small nuclear reactors that don’t have to be running and producing emissions all the time the way modern coal and gas plants do.

The White House’s executive order instructs the Department of Defense to produce a demonstrator of this type of reactor at a military site. It also instructs the Department of Energy to develop a way to produce a more powerful form of nuclear fuel without increasing the risks of nuclear proliferation.

Though the United States does currently make use of nuclear power, our power distribution system is outdated and prone to failures. We must invest in a more robust power grid, making use of green energy sources like wind and solar as well as nuclear power.

The future of our power grid includes producing power where it’s needed, when it’s needed. Small nuclear reactors are the technology best suited to do this, and with the right investment and study, it can be safely implemented to solve our power needs.