The Role of Nuclear in the Future of Energy

NuclearMany scientists believe we’re at the tipping point of our energy technology future. With the advancement of new, alternative energy sources, some are left to wonder what will happen to the energy landscape as a whole.

While nuclear power has energized much of the world over the past 50 years, the establishment of new nuclear power plants has been nonexistent in recent times in light of other alternatives such as solar and wind. Now, with California phasing out its last nuclear power plant in Diablo Canyon, many are left to wonder just what role nuclear will play in the future of energy.

A turning point

During the oil crisis of the 1970s, global conversations about the future of energy production began to hit the mainstream. If fossil fuels don’t warrant consistent dependency, how would the U.S. power future generations? The answer: nuclear.

“At that time we were thinking we’d build up these nuclear power plants everywhere and they would provide free electricity because it would just be too cheap to meter,” ECS Secretary Jim Fenton previously told ECS.

The thought was nuclear could provide such cheap and plentiful amounts of energy that not only would it be free to the consumer, but there would be an overproduction. This encouraged new research in devices such as flow batteries to store this excess energy.

But those expectations turned out to be wrong.

Nuclear dreams

Nuclear plants did not provide energy that was too cheap to meter and there was no excess. However, they were still effective in providing large amounts of power to a huge populous.

Currently, the U.S. energy landscape is comprised of about 19 percent nuclear. However, there have not been any new nuclear plants built in the country since 1996. On top of that, 20 of the country’s 61 operational plants (including California’s Diablo Canyon nuclear plant) are expected to close in the future due to the rise of cheaper, more efficient sources of energy and issues in how to store nuclear waste.

“Back then we thought [nuclear] would be so cheap that energy would be free,” Fenton says. “Now, it’s too expensive to even matter.”

Turning tides in energy

But the Diablo Canyon power plant isn’t just another nuclear plant shutting its doors; its closure (happening in late 2025) is monumental in the fact that it marks California’s total elimination of nuclear power.

On one hand, the closing of this nuclear power plant has been seen as a victory for anti-nuclear environmentalist who fought against the initial establishment of the plant in the 1970s. On the other hand, a number of prominent environmentalists have voiced their support of nuclear – sometimes even citing it as the world’s best option to shift dependence from fossil fuels.

Environmental consciousness

Before activists became suspicious of the dangers posed by nuclear energy, many believed the new science to be revolutionary. President Eisenhower even announced in his 1953 “Atoms for Peace” initiative declaration that, “Experts would be mobilized to apply atomic energy to the needs of agriculture, medicine, and other peaceful activities. A space purpose would be to provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world.”

At that point, the environmental consciousness of activists across the glob was not yet awoken. Weapons such as the hydrogen bomb began making citizens suspicion of the dangers of nuclear, and a decade later that suspicion trickled into general energy production.

But the energy argument wasn’t just about environmental dangers, it also touched on questions of the need of industrial-scale technology and the general overuse of energy.
The Diablo Canyon nuclear plant happened to be at the center of that argument.

Discussions of environmental destruction and nuclear meltdowns began to emerge. The modern environmental movement began taking a real form in the 1970s and nuclear power became a main target.

Softening position

But as times change, so do opinions. In light of climate change and rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, some environmentalists are taking their sights off of nuclear in order to tackle bigger fish such as the fossil fuel industry.

One prominent environmentalist and co-founder of Earth Day, Stewart Brand, went so far to tell NPR in an interview that, “I’m so pro-nuclear now that I would be in favor of it even if climate change and greenhouse gases were not an issue.”

The closing of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant promises California citizens the development of more solar, wind, and other clean power technologies. According to the company behind the move – Pacific Gas & Electric Co. – this shift will help get closer to the goal of 50 percent electricity generation in the state of California from renewable energy sources by 2020.


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