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Local View: By embracing nuclear power, US can lead on clean energy

From the column: "Nuclear energy also requires mining for precious metals, ... (but) it is the only true carbon-free source of electricity that is not dependent on weather or geography."

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While the urgency and daily impact of climate change are increasingly understood by the public, the environmental impacts of proposed clean-energy solutions are not. Renewable energies such as hydropower, solar, and wind commonly enter into mainstream discussion around climate change and enjoy high levels of public enthusiasm.

However, there are clear ecological and supply-chain obstacles that suggest we need to reposition nuclear energy to the forefront in our uphill battle against climate change.

This year especially has been a clear example of the strain that prolonged drought and intense heat can have on our water supply and river systems.

In Nevada, the Hoover Dam is running at 25% reduced hydropower capacity due to low water levels on the Colorado River. If water levels continue to drop over the next few years, to below 950 feet, the Hoover Dam would cease producing power, rendering an American engineering marvel obsolete in a growing population area with a demand for electricity that’s increasing every year.

Wind and solar energy, while relying on different elements to function, are similar in the types of environmental and supply problems they run into. Both require 40 to 50 times more surface space than coal and 90 to 100 times more space than natural gas. As Americans, we are all owners of our nation’s public lands, and we need to seriously consider whether a future of millions of acres of solar and wind farms is worth the impact on wildlife and wildlife habitat.

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that up to 500,000 migratory birds are killed by wind turbines each year, and if wind-energy capacity increases sixfold under a Department of Energy mandate, that number is estimated to increase to up to 1.4 million birds per year. In terms of the effect on wildlife habitat, any time a new solar or wind farm is built, it inevitably brings along with it new roads, infrastructure, and barbed-wire fences, all of which reduce the productive land available for wildlife. As the incessant spread of civilization continues and more land is developed every day, we need to strike a balance between meeting the energy needs of society and keeping our wild places wild.

There also appears to be a paradox between people’s support for developing wind and solar energy and their opposition to mining for the rare earth metals that go into them. Legislation is constantly being proposed to restrict millions of acres of federal land from being mined, while existing proposals seem to be mired in never-ending lawsuits and delayed permitting. This presents a quandary where the U.S. is forced to import $32 billion worth of raw minerals annually to manufacture not only solar panels and wind turbines but also a whole range of commercial products that impact every aspect of our lives.

Furthermore, due to the rapid increase in electric energy consumption, particularly in the past year, the intermittent availability of wind and solar cannot possibly keep up with this energy growth on their own. This is why natural gas has been quietly thriving and expanding as more solar and wind farms are built because they rely heavily on backup generation from natural gas to meet their nameplate energy-production capacity.

Any gains from carbon-free wind and solar are thereby offset by their reliance on natural gas when energy demand exceeds the available resources of the sun or wind.

Though it is true that nuclear energy also requires mining for precious metals, namely uranium for fueling reactors, it is the only true carbon-free source of electricity that is not dependent on weather or geography. Currently, nuclear power produces about 20% of our country’s electricity and 55% of all clean energy. It also protects grid reliability through long-term fuel storage and transmission-line voltage regulation, an important asset for both the increasing number of days when extreme heat creates a surge in electricity demand and for keeping the rates low and stable for consumers.

Nuclear energy offers a tremendous opportunity for the United States to take charge as the global leader in clean energy. As coal plants continue to be retired across the country, we can dramatically increase our nuclear capacity by retrofitting these coal plants into nuclear facilities. Wyoming, the nation’s top coal exporter, this year approved its first advanced nuclear power plant conversion, which will have the double benefit of releveraging the existing infrastructure of the coal plant while retaining the skilled workers and economic drive of the community.

If provided with the right incentives for research and investment, the United States is uniquely positioned to expand nuclear energy and enter into a new frontier of innovation to address the global and increasingly dire problem of climate change.

Antoni Grgurovic of Hastings, Minnesota, is an avid outdoorsman concerned about our country's land and water and is a member of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and the Sportsmen's Alliance. His sources for this column included American Rivers, the Arizona Republic, Atomic Insights, the Duluth News Tribune, Humanium, the International Atomic Energy Agency, Leiden University, Oregon Public Broadcasting, Pew Research, the U.S. Department of Labor, the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Yale University. He wrote this exclusively for the News Tribune.

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Antoni Grgurovic

Related Topics: MINING
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