God created mankind in his own image . . . God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:27–28).
God created humans in his image as his agents on earth. He calls us to be good stewards of creation, conserving natural resources. Today, we might use terms like “sustainability.”
Yet God also commanded humans to utilize his creation. In an earlier article, we opined that “God gives [humans] the power and ability to complete His work by channeling and directing creation toward maximum productivity.” This is the context in which Christians should view electric power: with conservation and utility in mind.
Sustainability of Nuclear Power
The most critical factor that has contributed to twenty-first century prosperity has been cheap, readily available energy—which, in the past has come primarily from petroleum and other fossil fuels. (Petroleum has many other uses that benefit humankind, including plastics and fertilizer.) But today there’s an emphasis on sustainable sources of energy. CO2-free energy is another focus. For this reason there’s a push for solar and wind energy, which are considered sustainable because they’re renewable. But does this miss the big picture?
Nuclear power generates CO2-free electricity from uranium-235 (U-235), a naturally occurring radioactive element. A radioactive atom “decays” naturally into something else; and when this happens, an opportunity to produce electricity is lost. Nuclear power is thus a “use it or lose it” deal. Furthermore, since nuclear power has a minimal effect on the environment and the waste can be recycled, nuclear power is sustainable.
Advantages over Solar and Wind Energy
Consider the pros and cons of nuclear power versus wind and solar. Nuclear energy is concentrated; a ½” fuel pellet contains the energy equivalent of one ton of coal or 150 gallons of oil. Nuclear power plants currently generate about 19% of the electricity in the US without conspicuous land use. Adding up to four times as many plants shouldn’t take up excessive space—especially if they are built at the “157 retired coal plant sites and 237 operating coal plants” identified by the US Department of Energy as “potential candidates for a C2N [coal-to-nuclear] transition.”
By contrast, wind and solar energy are dilute forms of energy: they require a lot of space. A Princeton University study found that 228,000 square miles of land—plus another 13,000 square miles offshore—could be required for wind and solar power to reach President Biden’s goal of a net-zero-carbon economy by mid-century. This is equal to the combined land area of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, as illustrated by overlays on a map of the US. Clever minds could apportion this acreage, but is it really the best use of so much land? What about unintended ecological consequences? What is the effect on birds and insects killed by so many large turbine blades, or the ecology of so much land covered by solar panels?
Recyclability is another aspect of sustainability. Spent fuel can be recycled, as the US Department of energy affirms: “More than 90% of its potential energy still remains” and less than 10% is low-level waste. The US recycled spent fuel until 1977, when President Carter stopped it. Today France is a world leader in recycling. Even without recycling, nuclear waste is small and controllable. Comprehensive federal regulations—developed over 70 years of nuclear power experience—ensure safe disposal of both high-level and low-level radioactive waste. High-level spent fuel is kept underwater in spent fuel pools for 1–3 years, then placed in heavily reinforced steel/concrete canisters for safe “dry cask” storage in restricted sites, licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). These sites are often on the land around nuclear power plants. Low-level A-B and C wastes (various materials made radioactive by exposure) are shipped to a few regulated disposal sites such as in Texas, where safe storage for many millennia is estimated due to the geology—even though the NRC affirms the materials will decay to safe levels in no more than 100 years for A-B or 500 for C.
By contrast, extensive utilization of solar panels and wind turbines may present a major waste problem. One estimate indicates that as much as 78 million metric tons of solar panels may need disposal by 2050. The toxic chemicals involved make landfills undesirable, and recycling of panels is in its infancy and very expensive. As for wind turbines, NPR reports that “researchers estimate the U.S. will have more than 720,000 tons of blade material to dispose of over the next 20 years,” and landfill disposal is currently the only viable option.
Wind and sunlight are freely available, but solar panels and turbine blades require mining rare-earth minerals that are in short supply and used in many other high-tech devices. China reportedly mines 80% of these minerals and refines 95%, adding political concerns to their availability. By contrast, despite political concerns that much uranium comes from Russia, uranium is a relatively plentiful mineral and Australia has the largest reserves. The US has a large strategic stockpile in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
Another advantage of nuclear energy is that it is produced 24/7. The sun and wind produce energy only when the sun is shining and there is moderate velocity wind (not too hard or too soft) and when it’s not cold enough to freeze the turbines. Backup sources are required, typically natural gas, which is inefficient and counterproductive. Battery backup would solve this issue, but it may be very expensive, and substantial problems and delays hamper widespread implementation. Moreover, battery design may require importing rare earths and other minerals from China.
How about safety? Surveys have attempted to make comprehensive comparisons of deaths from the various forms of energy, considering mining, fabrication, construction, and power production. The data is imperfect, but if relatively accurate, wind, solar, and nuclear energy are roughly equivalent in deaths and CO2 emissions per gigawatt and far better than all other forms of energy.
These surveys also illustrate that concerns about nuclear accidents are overrated. For almost 70 years, the US Navy has used nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers, and nuclear power plants have been built and operated worldwide. There have been only three high profile incidents: Three Mile Island in 1979, Fukushima in 2011, and Chernobyl in 1986. Of these, only Chernobyl resulted in directly identifiable deaths or serious consequences. All these accidents led to corrective action to make nuclear power safer, and eleven years after Fukushima, Japan has made nuclear power the focus of its CO2-free electricity. In 35 years since Chernobyl, Ukraine’s other nuclear power plants have continued safely; and the same is true in the US since 1979. Even California—which has been systematically replacing nuclear power with wind and solar—has decided not to close its last nuclear site.
Extensive federal regulations also ensure the safety and security of US nuclear power plants. Since 9/11, plant security has been increased with sniper towers, fencing, concrete barriers, dry moats, and other impediments to terrorists. Extensive emphasis is placed on personnel safety and security, including such things as a mandatory, structured checklist before entering potentially hazardous areas.
Finally, regarding sustainability of consumer capital, a 2020 study by the International Energy Agency shows nuclear power is the least expensive of low-carbon technologies.
The evidence seems clear: if we wish to replace fossil fuels, nuclear power is a viable, sustainable, conservation-based, CO2-free source of energy. Construction of new nuclear power plants will take time, and in the short term, we must continue to generate energy primarily with fossil fuels to keep the lights on. This may not be a perfect solution, yet impoverishing Americans by driving up the price of fossil fuels without a clear plan for a clean energy transition is not a compassionate Christian option.
Moreover, we believe the power of God-given human ingenuity will eventually develop something even better. As stewards of God’s creation, it’s our responsibility to seek and support energy solutions that will benefit everyone.