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TRAN: We need to focus on nuclear energy as potential climate change solution

Column: Hung Up

It is time to look past the misconceptions surrounding nuclear energy — nuclear power could have significant benefits in regards to climate change. – Photo by Lukáš Lehotsky / Unsplash

We are often asked to help reduce global warming and prevent climate change in our everyday lives. You should save electricity: Make sure the lights are always off when you are not in the room. You should conserve water: Take shorter showers and do not leave the tap running.

This topic also reaches public policy and popular media. Plastic straws have been banned by governments and private companies around the world, being replaced by paper straws. More recently, many states and countries have started banning plastic bags from retailers, requiring customers to either bring or buy their own reusable ones.

While climate change is one of the largest challenges that humanity will have to face and an issue that we should undoubtedly be dedicating our efforts towards, the emphasis on these minute lifestyle changes draws attention away from the fact that we, as individuals, are able to contribute only minuscule amounts to the fight against climate change compared to companies and industries.

Take the example of plastic straws: The weight of polluted plastic straws only makes up approximately 2,000 tons of the 9 million tons of plastic that reach the ocean. In other words, that is just 0.022 percent of the total.

Households collectively make up a significant portion of carbon emissions, much of which is from transportation, electricity and heating usage. Wealthier countries, such as the U.S., have households with much higher emissions per capita due to travel and expenditures.

For transportation, it may seem like the problem could be completely solved by replacing traditional gasoline cars with electronic vehicles. The most significant effect of this transition is that electric vehicles do not emit exhaust smoke like gasoline cars.

Over the lifecycle of comparable cars, the electric version will produce less than half of the greenhouse gas emissions of a traditional car, according to the estimations graph from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Though, electric vehicles as they currently stand are not completely clean due to their source of electricity. In fact, 65 percent of the total emissions of an electric car stem from the upstream process of gathering lithium for the car's battery.

The U.S., generates approximately 60 percent of its energy from fossil fuels, approximately 20 percent from renewable sources and about 19 percent from nuclear energy.

While the use of coal as and energy source has been decreasing for the past few decades, the use of natural gas has been steadily increasing — it now accounts for 38 percent of the total electricity generation in the U.S., which is the largest of any source. Though it is cleaner than other fossil fuel sources like coal, it still produces significant amounts of methane.

At the same time, the prevalence of renewable energy has been steadily increasing, mostly through wind and solar power developments. Still, the rate of increase is likely too slow for it to fully replace coal and natural gas.

Meanwhile, nuclear power has remained at roughly the same output for more than a decade. There are currently two new nuclear reactors in construction for the first time in seven years — the first of which started functioning earlier in March this year.

In order to phase out fossil fuels and their high emissions, nuclear energy should be favored. Its current stagnant state, along with some reactors being shut down, has meant that coal is being replaced by natural gas instead of clean energy since renewables' current growth is not able to meet the energy demand.

The primary issue with nuclear power is policy opposition. Nuclear meltdowns are worldwide news stories and create fear that nuclear energy is an unreliable energy source, even though there have been less than a handful of major incidents in history.

People also worry about how radioactive waste is contained and associate nuclear power with the possibility of nuclear accidents and radiation-filled wastelands. As a result of these concerns, though, stringent regulations have been implemented.

Yet, even with the restrictions and increased efforts to make it even safer than the other major energy sources, the support for nuclear energy expansion has consistently remained lower than 50 percent of the U.S. population, with only about 35 percent favoring it in 2022. This matches the 33 percent supporting oil and gas and is quite far from the 72 percent supporting renewables.

To make the most impact on reducing climate change, it is imperative to shift to cleaner energy sources rather than focusing on individuals' efforts to reduce their energy consumption. Though completely adopting renewable energy sources to replace fossil fuels may sound ideal, this goal may be unrealistic when looking at their current growth and inconsistent production. Even now, natural gas is the active replacement.

Meanwhile, nuclear energy may be cleaner and safer, yet its unpopularity and associated fears have dissuaded governments from pursuing continued development.

With the world constantly being reminded of how emissions need to be cut before climate change reaches its point of no return — it would seem crucial to cut back the largest sources as soon as possible. Yet the U.S. seems to stubbornly continue on the slower track.

Tyler Tran is a first-year in the School of Arts and Sciences majoring in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry and minoring in Economics. His column, "Hung Up," runs on alternative Fridays.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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