(p. A17) Jacopo Buongiorno, a nuclear-engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has calculated that over the life cycle of power plants, which includes construction, mining, transport, operation, decommissioning and disposal of waste, the greenhouse-gas emissions for nuclear power are 1/700th those of coal, 1/400th of gas, and one-fourth of solar. Nuclear also requires 1/2,000th as much land as wind and around 1/400th as much as solar. For any given power output, the amount of raw material used to build a nuclear plant is a small fraction of an equivalent solar or wind farm. Although nuclear waste is obviously more difficult to dispose of, its volume is 1/10,000th that of solar and 1/500th of wind. This includes abandoned infrastructure and all the toxic substances that end up in landfills. One person’s lifetime use of nuclear power would produce about a half-ounce of waste. Even including the Chernobyl disaster, human mortality from coal is 2,000 to 3,000 times that of nuclear, while oil claims 400 times as many lives.
Although the federal government tends to resist nuclear power, many nuclear technologies are being investigated and funded by private capital including molten-salt reactors, liquid-metal reactors, advanced small modular reactors, microreactors and much more. More than 70 development projects are under way in the U.S., with many designs intended to create assembly-line construction facilities to simplify and standardize testing, licensing and installations. One appealing approach is to replace large-scale facilities with many smaller but safer, cheaper and more-manageable ones. The $10 billion 10-year planning and implementation cycle for a large nuclear plant can be cut in half with a small modular reactor and another half with a microreactor.
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Nuclear power is cheap, efficient, extremely reliable and nearly carbon-free. New designs, including smaller reactors, drastically reduce the risk of large-scale radioactive contamination.
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Sacrifice isn’t always the path to progress.
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(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date November 4, 2021, and has the same title as the print version.)