Energy

Energy is important to me.

It’s so important to me that I included it as one of my passions in my first blog post:  ‘About Me‘.

When I look at images from NASA of the ‘Earth at Night,’ I can’t help but be reminded of Neil Degrasse Tyson’s quote, “We are in this universe, but perhaps more important…the universe is in us.” We have remade the earth to reflect the stars from whence we came. But this fabricated starlight, the power that makes our nights twinkle is not free. It comes at a great cost- the resources we use to create that electricity.  

Illustration by NPR/NASA

This little star isn’t a city. It’s an oil and gas field in North Dakota, one of many recently constructed to meet the demand we have created, where fossil fuels are being fracked and then transported to refineries and powerplants. These non-sustainable, non-renewable, high-pollution energy sources generated 62.7% of the energy used in the United States in 2017, according to the EIA. The pipelines used to transport them have become a target of protesters who have justifiable fears about the environmental and health risks that come with pipelines. However, these protests have not stopped the transport of fossil fuels, and the alternative transportation methods have had dire consequences.

Lac-Mégantic Rail Disaster- July 2013
A freight train carrying crude oil got stuck outside the town of Lac-Mégantic in Canada. The whole town had to be rebuilt, as what wasn’t blown up in the approximately 1km blast zone was contaminated. 47 people died. Pipeline or no pipeline, our demand for energy comes with serious risk.

Deaths of Despair, Coal Deposits and Trump 2016 Presidential Results

Causes of Mortality Rate 2014

via GIPHY

Percent Change of Mortality Rate by Cause 1980-2014

via GIPHY

Coal, the resource that powered the industrial revolution, is still used today.

The first gif shows the mortality rate in 2014 caused by alcohol, drug use, self-harm, and interpersonal violence. The second shows the percent change from 1980 to 2014. Both use maps from a JAMA study. Above it is a map of coal deposits in the United States, and below is a map of states Donald Trump won in the 2016 Presidential election. There is an obvious correlation between these, as one article called them, deaths of despair and fossil fuel extraction. Where there is coal there is ever increasing unemployment, which evidence tells us leads to much higher rates of substance abuse. Donald Trump promised throughout his campaign to “put the miners back to work”. A year into his campaign, Vox found that he had failed to do so, and NPR reported that the number of coal mine deaths had increased in 2017 after a record low in 2016. There were 15 coal mine deaths in 2017 alone. It’s not that people who work at coal mines are unaware of the negative environmental impacts or the health risks, but as one of their own put it “If you had to take another job, in this area especially,” Williams says, “you’re going to take anywhere from a 50 to 70 percent pay cut to what the next best thing is that’s out there.” (NPR). The same article disclosed the national average salary of coal miners- $80,000. The people of coal country are just trying to support their families the only way they know how, but the impact of their industry can’t be ignored. The energy industry is responsible for the majority of our carbon emissions, and coal is responsible for 70% of that. Coal is deadly, commonly known to be terrible for the environment, and unsustainable. But there is light at the end of this mine shaft- solar power.

Renewables are vastly more popular than any, other form of energy, with support on both sides of the aisle according to the PEW Research Center. But they come with significant drawbacks. Solar panels don’t work in the dark, and the wind doesn’t always propel wind turbines, but our demand for energy is constant. Until renewable technology is more advanced, our base power needs must come from a more reliable source, like Nuclear.

Nuclear power plants operate using nuclear fission which heats up water. Steam untouched by the radioactive material turns a turbine and generates power. They are very similar to wind turbines, only it doesn’t depend on which way the wind is blowing that day. It’s constant, and provides an excellent source for our base power needs.  

Gif From the Nuclear Regulatory Commission

We have a collective fear of nuclear, it’s gotten quite a bit of bad press. More people have died in fossil fuel accidents like the Upper Big Branch mine tunnel collapse, which killed 29, and the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster, which killed 47 people, than died in during the nuclear accident at Chernobyl. Exact numbers vary, but usually fall around 38 deaths directly associated with the disaster, with a consensus of “fewer than 50.”

Meltdown situations, while extremely rare, are scary. If there’s nothing to cool the radioactive material, it can overheat, become liquid, and much more toxic. We think of disasters like Chernobyl and Fukashima as inevitable, but neither of those plants were under the kind of severe regulation plants in the US are required to meet. A notable event from the US, Three Mile Island, had a partial meltdown that would’ve been catastrophic had there not been back up after back up in place, multiple levels of failsafes, and excellent engineering. 

Nuclear energy is incredibly safe, as the severe consequences of these accidents has led to substantial governmental regulation and significant research. The containers that hold spent fuel rods, those radioactive things we all fear, undergo extensive testing. In one such  test  reserachers crashed a plane into one of the containers, which sustained no major damage. Gifs below show the containers being slammed into walls, hit by a train, and fried by a jet-fuel fire. None of the containers shown sustained any major damage. Nuclear waste is hard to deal with, but compared to other forms or energy that produce coal slurry and carbon emissions, it has far less environmental impact. In fact, nuclear energy doesn’t have any direct carbon emissions. The facilities designed and built in the US are exceptional, and are routinely examined.

Container Testing AKA Cask Tests

Gifs Made Using SANDIA Labs Video

Nuclear plants are no more dangerous than other energy production methods. Nuclear is the only energy resource we have today that is carbon-free, sustainable, cost effective, as it costs less per kilowatt hour than fossil fuels, reliable, as it produces whether it rains or shines, and safe. Power plants of all kinds have been facing thousands of terrorist attacks each month, both physical and cyber, for years now. Power plants have been successful at thwarting these attacks so far, but Nuclear plants have the added benefit of extra physical security and better computer systems that are constantly monitored and upgraded. While renewables are both green and popular, there is no better option than nuclear for our base power needs. 

Coal has got to go, it’s dirty, unsustainable, and toxic. Renewables are green and popular, but entirely dependent on the very unpredictable forces of nature. The only viable solution for replacing it and other fossil fuels is nuclear power.