Posted November 15, 2023
By Ray Blanco
The Case For Nuclear
In 1953, amid spiraling fears of a nuclear world war, President Dwight Eisenhower took to the United Nations General Assembly to outline a new vision for the future of nuclear power…
“Against the dark background of the atomic bomb, the United States does not wish merely to present strength, but also the desire and the hope for peace,” Eisenhower told the United Nations.
From his speech the phrase “Atoms for Peace” was coined, marking the first steps toward an entirely new way to provide power to the citizens of the United States.
However, nuclear power would face its fair share of trouble thanks to its psychological entanglement with weapons of mass destruction.
It started on the right foot… From around 1950–1970, the use of nuclear energy greatly increased.
Unfortunately, two incidents effectively stained nuclear’s reputation all the way until the 21st century. Of course, I’m talking about the Three Mile Island accident and the Chernobyl disaster.
Fear of nuclear energy swept across the nation after a reactor partially melted down at the Three Mile Island plant on March 28, 1979.
This became the most serious accident in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant operating history.
Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant
However, the actual ramifications of this incident were infinitely small compared with the meltdown in Chernobyl.
The minuscule radioactive releases at Three Mile Island had no detectable health effects on plant workers or the public.
Increasing Safety and Efficiency
Following the accident, widespread changes in nuclear power plant operations were implemented.
Things like emergency response planning, reactor personnel training, plant engineering, protection measures, and more were all overhauled.
When all was said and done, U.S. reactor safety was greatly increased.
Fast-forward to today and nuclear energy is experiencing a total renaissance…
A major contributing factor to nuclear’s second look has to do with the push for clean energy.
The fact is nuclear energy IS green energy. It releases no greenhouse gasses and can provide massive amounts of power.
Still, there are issues in the way that continue to act as roadblocks on the path toward widespread nuclear energy utilization.
For starters, there are a few checkboxes that must be met before nuclear energy can find its way into the mainstream energy grid.
One major factor, for example, is cost. For an energy source to overtake another it needs to be cost-competitive.
Secondly, there are a ton of regulatory hurdles to overcome to bring a nuclear power plant or generator online.
In fact, there are only seven reactor designs that are approved for use in the U.S.
However, thanks to Small Modular Nuclear Reactors (SMRs), nuclear energy is becoming cheaper and more readily available than ever before.
Reactor technology has come a long way since the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl incidents and it’s likely to become much more prevalent in our energy grids over the next few years.
And I haven’t even mentioned the possibility of nuclear fusion yet…
The Road to Fusion
In December of 2022, scientists and The US Energy Department announced a major breakthrough in research on nuclear fusion, after creating a controlled nuclear fusion reaction at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory that produced more energy than it consumed.
This is exciting because the implications of controlled nuclear fusion offer nearly limitless, truly clean energy.
The reaction happened by firing the world’s most powerful laser system at a tiny, nearly perfectly round, diamond capsule to crush the hydrogen atoms inside.
Imagine the implications of harnessing the same energy that the sun can create…
Although extremely impressive and promising, this breakthrough is still only a small step on the road to achieving practical energy from nuclear fusion.
Right now, it takes large amounts of energy to create and control a nuclear fusion reaction.
So, for this type of energy to be worth pursuing, it needs to create more energy than it uses to ignite the reaction.
That’s what the scientists at the Livermore lab were able to achieve for the first time.
However, when you zoom out a bit, there are still more milestones to hit.
The second step is getting the entire fusion reactor to produce more energy than it uses.
For nuclear fusion to become widely available, the entire facilities that produce the reactions need to produce more energy than what they consume.
The reaction at the Livermore lab did not achieve that breakthrough. To be honest, it wasn’t very close either.
Finally, there’s an economic milestone that needs to be reached. In other words, nuclear fusion needs to be more cost-effective than other forms of energy.
That’s another breakthrough we’re not close to yet.
But that shouldn’t ruin the optimism that the nuclear fusion breakthrough at Livermore holds… All this means is that there’s more work to be done!
And with reaching the first milestone, I expect there to be plenty more dollars in R&D funding approved for working towards the remaining two milestones.
So, the ball is rolling for bringing nuclear energy back online here in the US. That’s a great sign to see as scientists continue working on breakthroughs in the field.