Power struggle: Nuclear energy contends with climate change

East Coasters of a certain age are bound to cringe when they hear the words “Three Mile Island,” summoning memories of the March 28, 1979, emergency at the nuclear generating station outside Harrisburg, Pa. That morning, a cooling system malfunction caused a partial meltdown of one of the plant’s pressurized water reactors. Although the amount of radioactive material released during the accident was too scant to harm anyone, it sparked enough fear to paralyze U.S. nuclear power development—an industry that had grown steadily since the nation’s first commercial nuclear power stations opened in the 1950s.

Aerial view of Three Mile Island

Now, 40 years after the near-disaster, anti-nuclear sentiments are softening in light of a different threat: climate change. Essentially operating like massive tea kettles, nuclear power plants don’t emit greenhouse gases because they don’t burn any fuel—a feature proponents say could solve the world’s climate problems.

Reto Gieré, professor and chair of the Department of Earth and Environmental Science, urges the public to take those claims with a grain of salt.

“Unfortunately, politicians and lobbyists say what they want without telling the whole story,” he says. “While electricity is being made, there are no carbon dioxide emissions—but if you look at the entire life cycle of a nuclear power plant from building to dismantling it, of course nuclear power generation causes emissions. However, based on life-cycle assessments, the emissions from nuclear power are more than eight times lower per energy unit than those from fossil fuels.”

Read more at Omnia magazine.