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Is Nuclear Energy Earth Day Approved?

According to Earth Day founder, the late-Senator Gaylord Nelson, the commemoration rose out of “concern about what was happening to the land, rivers, lakes and air.” These are important concerns, indeed. In fact, conserving the nation’s environmental beauty and natural resources is something that most America’s can agree on. Perhaps that is why there is growing public and political support for nuclear power.

More than any other source of energy, nuclear technology makes the production of massive amounts of reliable, affordable, and environmentally friendly power possible. Of course the notion of “environmentally friendly” can be subjective. But based on Senator Nelson’s concerns, nuclear seems to fit the bill better than anything.

Conserving land. A traditional nuclear power plant takes up a few hundred acres. And the power produced there is often enough to keep the lights on for millions of people. Wind and solar on the other hand can take thousands or tens of thousands of acres to produce the same amounts of energy. New reactor technologies could be even less land intensive.

But it’s not just about the plant’s footprint. It’s about the technology itself. Despite being mined, the uranium fuel for reactors is also a good choice from a land use perspective. First, mining techniques like in situ mining leave the earth’s surface mostly undisturbed. Secondly, uranium fuel can be recycled and used multiple times. And lastly, uranium mined for other purposes can now be used to fuel power reactors. Indeed, half of America’s nuclear energy (or 10 percent of all of our electricity) is produced from uranium that was converted from Russian warheads.

Keeping our water ways clean. Despite anti-nuclear arguments routinely criticizing nuclear energy on water issues, the truth is that nuclear power is very water friendly. While it does use massive amounts of water, up to million’s of gallons daily, to cool the equipment within the plant, it consumes very little of that water. Depending on the cooling system, it either returns the water, untouched by anything radioactive, to its source or releases about half of it through condensation before returning the rest to its source. This approach has had virtually no measurable impact on local aquatic life levels.

Some nuclear power plants, such as the Palo Verde Nuclear Generation Station, do not even use fresh water for cooling. Instead, it uses waste water from nearby cities for cooling. New nuclear plants, such as one being considered in Florida, are also looking to use waste water to minimize fresh water usage.

Other energy sources have much more impact on water resources. Take offshore wind, for example, which to produce similar amounts of energy would occupy tremendous amounts of space. For instance, the Cape Wind project in the Nantucket Sound would consist of 130 wind turbines, spread across 25 square miles. Due to the intermittency of wind, it would take approximately 24 of these projects to produce the same amount of energy as one average sized new nuclear plant.

Then there is the issue of leaking oil that is almost never considered. There are already numerous examples of wind mills leaking oil into the environment. Now people want to line our shore lines with them under the auspices of environmental cleanliness. Here is a list of over 700 wind mill related accidents, including oil spills.

Breathable air. Nuclear power emits virtually nothing into the atmosphere. That’s because nuclear fission, which produces the heat that is used to run the generators, requires no burning. Even the towers of billowing white clouds often associated with nuclear power plants are only emitting water vapor into the atmosphere. So whether one cares about pollutants such as particulates, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides or emissions like CO2, nuclear energy should be attractive.

Senator Nelson cited the need to clean our land, water and air as the reason for Earth Day. Nothing has contributed as much to this objective while meeting America’s energy needs as nuclear power, and no source has the potential to ensure the preservation of our environment for the future.

Also, check out our research on the implications of the Japan nuclear crisis.

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