In Greek mythology, Prometheus, one of the great Titans, loved men more than the Olympians. While the gods were living in comfort and power, humans were blinded by the life of cold and infinite darkness. Sympathizing with mankind, Prometheus decided to defy the gods by stealing fire from them and giving it to humanity. However, when Zeus, the king of gods, found out about the incident, he became outraged and punished the Titan. Zeus then chained Prometheus to a rock and sent out an eagle to eat his liver every day. Despite his immense suffering, Prometheus never regretted his actions that helped light up humankind, giving us an opportunity to cook our food, warm our homes, make tools and weapons, and survive on our lovely planet.
Fire is a precious gift of the gods that was granted to humanity. But it’s not the only one. They also gave us nature, which opened countless opportunities to advance our civilization. Fortunately, human ingenuity was able to discover brilliant ways to harness the power from nature and create the modern world that we have today. And out of all the energy sources that humans have exploited, nuclear power might be the most fascinating one.
Due to its exciting nature, nuclear power has always been a subject of debate about whether it’s a great energy source for humans. One commentator on the issue is Mark Z. Jacobson, an Atmosphere/Energy Program Director and Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford University. In his article “The 7 Reasons Why Nuclear Energy Is Not the Answer to Solve Climate Change,” Jacobson rejects the idea of promoting nuclear power. He asserts that nuclear power pollutes our air and produces dangerous waste, which negatively damages our environment. He also believes that such an energy source possesses a meltdown risk, as evident in tragic events such as the Three-Mile Island in 1979 or the Chernobyl in 1986. Ultimately, these reasons have demoralized the public and governments around the world, tying nuclear power in knots for decades.
However, many environmentalists have started to pay close attention and acknowledge that such an energy source might not be as bad as it seems. And they are right. While there have undoubtedly been a few serious disasters in the history of nuclear power, it is important to actually redouble our efforts and utilize nuclear power in order to save our environment because it is the most efficient, clean, and abundant source of energy on the planet.
First, it is essential to understand how nuclear power works. This energy source originates from the most fundamental building block of all matter in the universe: the atom. Inside such a mysterious particle, there is the nucleus (the core) and electrons. For now, let’s pay attention to the nucleus because this is where the magic happens.
The nucleus contains two other smaller particles called protons and neutrons. We may have heard about the term “like charges repel,” so if a nucleus carries many protons (all have the same positive charges), then they should repel each other. But in such a case, why doesn’t the nucleus tear apart? The answer lies in what is called the “strong force”—the most powerful force in nature that helps sustain the nucleus. It is six thousand trillion trillion trillion (yes, there are thirty-nine zeroes!) times stronger than the force of gravity, which is responsible for holding our solar system together (Rehm). And if you have the brain of a great scientist, your curiosity might lead you to ask a question: “What if we break this nucleus apart and release the enormous energy within it?” Indeed, this process is possible. It’s called nuclear fission, and there is a way to achieve such a mind-blowing phenomenon: shooting neutrons!
Scientists bombarded the nucleus with neutrons to break them apart, releasing a large amount of energy, along with some free neutrons. These new neutrons then hit other atoms and liberated energy along with some newer neutrons. Looking at fig. 1, one can see that this continuous process causes a “chain reaction”—a method that can release enormous nuclear energy after countless collisions.
Such a process is the main difference between how nuclear and other energy sources produce electricity. While fossil fuel power plants burn coal or oil to create heat, nuclear reactors split atoms. This heat is then used to generate steam to drive turbines, eventually producing electricity for commercial use (“Where Does Our Electricity Come From?”).
Fission is what makes nuclear power the most efficient energy source in the world. Indeed, it only uses a small number of materials but can still generate more power than many other types of energy. The Nuclear Energy Institute of America offers fascinating facts regarding this property of nuclear power. Imagine you’re holding a pellet of uranium that is the size of a gummy bear. Yes, that little thing is extremely powerful—it can create as much energy as one ton of coal, 149 gallons of oil, or 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas (fig. 2).
In addition, according to the European Nuclear Society, one kilogram of uranium (specifically uranium-235) has the potential to produce three million times the energy generated from one kilogram of oil and coal (ENS). Also, nuclear power plants can operate twenty-four hours a day and work at full capacity 93% of the time. Based on these overwhelming facts, it’s obvious that nuclear power is indeed the most efficient energy source in the world.
This advantage of nuclear power is the key to saving our environment. Why? Because it can produce more electricity on less land than any other source. The Office of Nuclear Energy asserts that you would need three million solar panels or more than 430 wind turbines to generate the same amount of energy as a nuclear reactor does. Implementing such large-scale wind and solar farms will result in environmental degradation and habitat loss. Spinning turbine blades can threaten bird and bat populations and create unbearable noise pollution (Shellenberger). Solar panels can damage agriculture and vegetation growth in large areas, resulting in the destruction of wildlife habitats (Tali). In addition, according to Ryan M. Yonk, a Senior Research Faculty at the American Institute for Economic Research, wind and solar power—two of the most heavily subsidized and favorable energy sources—are also two of the most unreliable. We can’t simply make the sun shine twenty-four hours a day or force the wind to blow more regularly. These are the inherent problems of renewables that can’t be completely eradicated. Even if wind and solar have some advantages of storing electricity, the cost of making them reliable will require large infrastructure and battery storage, both of which are prohibitively expensive (Yonk).
Thus, renewables cannot single-handedly save our planet from climate change because of their inconsistency and unreliability. So why don’t we turn our attention to nuclear power—a source that can produce more energy, squander less land, and protect our environment?
“But it’s too dangerous!” some may say. Indeed, immense power comes with serious risks, and it’s hard to forget tragic nuclear power plant accidents such as Chernobyl and Fukushima. These have become the nightmares anchored in many people’s thoughts, leading them to support the anti-nuclear movements all over the world. One of the most catastrophic nuclear plant disasters was the Chernobyl reactor that occurred on 26 April 1986 in the Soviet Union (fig. 3). The reactor went out of control, releasing a considerable amount of radioactive material that caused twenty-eight deaths to the site’s workers within the first three months (“Background on Chernobyl”). Another 106 workers received high enough doses to cause acute radiation sickness. Eventually, an estimated 600,000 workers were required to clean up Chernobyl.
Such a deadly event has shaken the world and sealed the fate of nuclear power for generations. It has captured the attention of many scientists, and much research has been done to explore the long-term effects of Chernobyl. In fact, the United Nations decided to gather hundreds of scientists, economists, and health experts to assess the twenty-year impact of the largest nuclear disaster in history. They discovered that about four thousand cases of thyroid cancer have resulted from the accident’s contamination. Moreover, hundreds of thousands of people were also affected by radiation and relocated from the areas thereafter.
However, the actual truth of these effects is quite astounding. The United Nations’ massive report shows:
Only a 1% death rate among thyroid cancer victims
No effect on fertility, malformations, or infant mortality
No effect on adverse pregnancy outcomes or stillbirths
According to these concrete data, Dr. Michael Repachol, the manager of WHO’s Radiation Program, concludes that “the health effects of the accident were potentially horrific, but when you add them up using validated conclusions from good science, the public health effects were not nearly as substantial as had at first been feared” (United Nations).
Of course, this research does not intend to downplay the tragic Chernobyl accident. The disaster killed many people, which still demonstrates the risky nature of nuclear power. But the United Nations wants to reassure us with scientific facts and offer us a realistic outlook of the technology. And the truth is that nuclear power is indeed one of the safest energy sources in the world.
If this claim sounds unbelievable, then some accurate statistics should help. Cambridge House International conducted research measuring the death rate among various energy sources and provided a startling result—nuclear power only causes ninety deaths to workers per one thousand TeraWatt-hours (Desjardins). And what about our closest “friend,” fossil fuels? Around 136,000 deaths per one thousand TWh. A frightening number. Fossil fuels are lethal because they generate air pollution that creeps into our lungs and increases the risk of deadly diseases like lung cancer, stroke, and heart diseases (WHO).
This whole comparison scheme points to a flaw in human thinking and shows how biased we can be. Our risk perception towards nuclear power and fossil fuels is quite similar to air and car travel. Plane crashes happen unexpectedly and really grab our attention, but the odds of dying are just 1 in 11 million (Ropeik). Car crashes frequently occur to the point that it becomes the noise that we tune out—and the chance of dying is 1 in 107 (ER Injury Attorney). Hence, it’s clear that air travel is much safer than car travel, and no one should abandon flying because of some well-known accidents in the past. Likewise, we should not fear nuclear power based on only a few admittedly major events like Chernobyl, while in general, fossil fuels killed many more humans.
While nuclear power has shown its dominance in terms of efficiency, it is also one of the cleanest energy sources for the environment. As previously stated, nuclear energy is generated through a method called fission, which involves splitting uranium atoms. Surprisingly, such a process does not create carbon dioxide, making nuclear power a zero-emission energy source. According to the Office of Nuclear Energy, the United States avoided more than 476 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2019 by using nuclear power (Office of Nuclear Energy). That’s equal to removing 100 million cars from the road, and it’s more than all other clean energy sources combined!
Impressed by such a fascinating aspect of nuclear power, I reached out to Dr. Nam Nguyen, a nuclear physics professor at the Universite Grenoble Alpes in France, to learn more about this clean energy source. He explained to me that France derives 70 percent of its electricity from nuclear power because it emits the least CO2 to the environment. And although France loves nuclear energy, Germany hates it. In fact, Germany phased out the majority of its nuclear power plants and replaced them with renewables. Dr. Nguyen then showed me a comparison between France’s energy production and Germany’s—and the result is astonishing. France generates twice more electricity from clean energy sources than Germany, which means that going nuclear can save our planet better than using renewables (fig. 4).
This interview with Dr. Nguyen taught me an important lesson and offered me a new perspective on combating climate change: if we want to save the planet, we have to go nuclear.
So far, we have heard mostly about the advantages of nuclear power. So why aren’t there countless nuclear power plants in the US and the world? A fastidious and experienced environmentalist might quickly point out that there is a problem, and perhaps a significant weakness in this energy source: radioactive waste.
Radioactive waste refers to the nuclear fuel that has been used in a nuclear reactor and is no longer efficient in generating electricity. These high-level wastes are hazardous because they produce fatal radiation doses, which are harmful to the environment and humans. When these wastes accumulate, they can result in radioactive leaks and damage water supply, crops, and animals (Jacobson). Quite staggeringly, nuclear waste could take up to thousands of years to decay (becoming harmless), which means it will keep threatening us and our ecosystem for generations.
Admittedly, this problem has crippled the future of large-scale commercialization of nuclear power for decades. Governments are reluctant to build more plants, and investors remain skittish about pouring billions of dollars into new projects. Unfortunately, nuclear waste is not going to disappear any soon.
However, this issue might not sound as scary when one puts it into context. First, there is not that much waste. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, all of the used fuel ever produced by the commercial nuclear industry since the 1950s would cover a whole football field to a height of approximately 10 yards (“Nuclear Waste”). And if that sounds like a lot, then I must reveal that coal plants generate that same amount every single hour. Nuclear waste can also easily and safely be buried in canisters encased in concrete, which causes no harm to the outside world (fig. 5).
In addition, scientists are also looking for new ways to alleviate such a problem directly. Recently, they have been investigating thorium for fuel instead of conventional uranium for nuclear energy. Thorium is a material that is more abundant in nature, safer to mine, and its waste is less dangerous than that of uranium. Due to these advantages, China is trying to build a thorium-fueled nuclear reactor this year. And if the experiment becomes a success, the country will push for commercialization and possibly achieve zero emissions by 2050 (Smriti).
Radioactive waste is admittedly the most challenging problem for the nuclear power industry. It is not going to disappear any soon, but we can still somehow safely monitor the waste and reduce its lifespan as much as possible. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t let this problem conceal the fact that nuclear power is still one of the cleanest energy sources in the world. Although it’s not perfect—nothing is perfect—nuclear power still has the greatest potential to save our planet.
But what if a flawless energy source does exist? What if the gods hear our cry and decide to give us a solution to all environmental problems? Indeed, they do have a gift for us. This ultimate gift is even more powerful, abundant, and cleaner than anything we’ve seen on Earth. It is nuclear fusion—a revolutionary energy source that will change the world.
If fission is about splitting atoms, fusion is about smashing them together. However, this process is much more challenging to achieve. The electrical repulsion between two particles is impregnable. Therefore, the only way to do it is to heat them up. But you can’t put the atoms in the microwave and heat them up like your food. They have to be placed in a condition with a temperature of 150 million degrees Celsius, which is about ten times hotter than the center of the Sun! And quite amazingly, this process is precisely how the stars power themselves in the universe (ITER).
In fact, what we are doing is creating a Sun on Earth. By heating the two atoms to an extreme temperature, we can absorb enough energy to overcome the electrical repulsion. After these two atoms (mainly hydrogen) are “fused” together, they release a massive amount of energy that is four times larger than fission. Four times. Then, a continuous chain reaction will occur, resulting in an unlimited amount of energy.
At the moment, there is no working nuclear fusion on Earth yet. It’s undoubtedly a major technological hurdle in the history of humankind, so there are many obstacles to overcome before our dream becomes a reality. But the most brilliant scientists in the world have been working on this project for decades (fig. 7). And they’re getting very close. Soon, this artificial Sun on Earth will be commercialized and become a game-changer.
Nuclear fusion will give us an infinite amount of energy, just like how the Sun never stops powering our solar system. Nuclear fusion will advance our civilization, opening doors for countless innovations and opportunities. Interstellar travel, flying cars, quantum computers, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology—they can all become a reality once we have free and unlimited energy. Nuclear fusion is also carbon-free, which will help clean up our planet and potentially eliminate climate change. Nuclear fusion, the ultimate gift of the gods, will grant us a chance to restore all the mess that we’ve created and allow us to move forward responsibly.
During times when people are constantly spreading negativity about our endangered planet, it’s essential to stay optimistic about the future. Our beloved Earth needs a new generation of caring, thoughtful, innovative, and driven individuals who are capable of fixing the planet and being good stewards. One of the most crucial steps we need to make is reducing fossil fuels and replacing them with a better energy source. I can’t think of a better solution than nuclear power. So if we want to save our planet, we have to accept the gift of the gods, and we have to go nuclear.
Minh Vu is a first-year student in Fordham University’s Gabelli School of Business, majoring in finance. Minh loves exploring and learning about new technology, economics, and science. Minh’s goal for this essay is to make complex scientific topics like nuclear power accessible for readers, and to inspire people to look forward to an exciting future for humanity.