Could nuclear energy be the new "green" energy alternative?

The nuclear energy debate has persisted for decades. Those who strongly oppose it argue that its benefits, such as carbon-free emissions and low fuel costs, are almost irrelevant when the risk posed by radioactive waste and reactor meltdowns are factored in. The problem revolves around how little waste storage is prioritized in the planning stages of a reactor, including the locations of waste storage, leading to a surplus of radioactive waste at reactor sites. With the progress being made to advance waste disposal methods and increase public participation in countries that need storage for accumulating waste and developing countries considering nuclear energy, nuclear energy could be the new “green” energy alternative. For nuclear energy to be accepted by politicians of developed and developing countries and individuals that will live near reactors, the planning stages for the final step, the repository, should be prioritized. A repository, a facility which successfully houses highly radioactive waste for thousands of years, needs proper planning in order to avoid long-term problems.

However, common misconceptions such as that repositories sites may leak radioactive material into the environment make up one of the reasons why nuclear energy is rejected as an energy option. In fact, “Sweden is currently the country closest to realizing a final solution for spent fuel” and, along with Finland and France, is close to begin construction on a geological repository (MacFarlane). However, all of this starts with the prioritization of the planning and siting stages of nuclear waste repositories. According to Allison McFarlane in her research paper “It’s 2050: Do you know where your nuclear waste is?”, countries developing their waste management plan must first implement institutions, such as the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, that will consider all aspects involved in the selection of a geological repository. Once such an institution, whether it is overseen by the government or privately owned, is established countries can turn their attention to conceptualizing strategies to garner public cooperation, change environmentalists negative opinions, and overcome political opposition, which seems to be the death of many of these projects.

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If developing countries are more inclined to utilize nuclear energy with a clear and safe method of disposal established, they, along with nuclear states, will be more open to the idea of a multinational repository site. A multinational site would mean a reduced amount of spent fuel and radioactive waste at already overburdened nuclear reactors that would be waiting decades for a geological repository to be built (McCombie). Careful planning and support from volunteer communities have helped repository sites like the one in Osthammar, Sweden avoid the fate of the United State’s Yucca Mountain Project. The United States is an established nuclear state with many reactors providing a stable and steady amount of energy to major cities, but with no place to take the waste produced by all of these reactors. That’s where Yucca Mountain came in. It presented an ideal alternative to the current methods of waste storage, such as the dry cask design presently used by the United States, because it takes the spent nuclear fuel out of the reactors decreasing the risk of overburdening the reactor.

Yucca Mountain could have also been a prime candidate for a multinational host site, where the United States, as the host, would have been “entitled to benefits for providing a valuable disposal service” (McCombie). If projects continue to be stalled more waste will accumulate with nowhere to store it. While proponents of the Yucca Mountain Project failed to establish public and political support for their project, a different set of problems plagued Japan’s Rokkasho repository. The case of Rokkasho is an especially complex one as it is a repository that made it past the siting and construction stages. It was supposedly accepted by the residents of Rokkasho, yet problems such as “18 safety-related delays so far in the start of uranium reprocessing” have begun to deteriorate relations between the public and the government (Idei). While the town of Rokkasho has prospered immensely from the repository it has become apparent that if the issues present at Rokkasho are not addressed a catastrophe on the level of Fukushima, where a natural disaster acted as the catalyst to a massive reactor meltdown, could happen again.

These worries may also have been sparked by Rokkasho’s proximity to Fukushima. The isolated incident at this repository was then misconstrued by the media and therefore negatively affected the public perception of nuclear energy as a whole. Besides the concern for the safe disposal of spent nuclear waste, one of the greatest fears associated with nuclear energy, which can be attributed to the constant emphasis placed on incidents such as Chernobyl and Fukushima, is the possibility of a reactor meltdown, which in itself is extremely rare. This fear, coupled with the misconception that there is no safe method of waste disposal, is amplified by the media’s involvement. On occasion the media obscures benefits such as the production of electricity without the release of carbon dioxide, and unlike wind and solar energy, nuclear energy provides “power night and day without interruption” (Forsberg).

With the advancements that have been made and the new methods of waste disposal that have been proposed, nuclear energy stands a chance of becoming a front runner as a “green” energy alternative. Each proposed solution, from increased community support to multinational repository sites, offer the advancement many deem necessary for nuclear energy to be a completely reliable source of energy. If public participation is increased, multinational host sites are seriously considered, and nuclear states are supportive of developing countries and their strive for economic, renewable energy then the solution to the nuclear energy debate may already be here.