by Beth Piper
When Earth Day rolls around on April 22, it marks an opportunity for us to consider our relationship to the natural world, and how we can improve that relationship. The first Earth Day in 1970 signalled the first serious push by ecological activists to influence mainstream public opinion. From its initial beginnings in just the United States, Earth Day has grown until it’s now observed in almost 200 countries.
The event has served to demonstrate to public officials the widespread concern for the welfare of the planet held by ordinary citizens. Indeed, it was in the same year that Earth Day first began that the U.S. Department of Environmental Protection was inaugurated by President Nixon. By highlighting the importance of recycling, cutting air pollution, eliminating the use of chlorofluorocarbons, and other ecological concerns, Earth Day has served to spur government officials to action.
While we work to perfect pollution-free, clean energy infrastructure, such as solar panels and wind turbines, we ought not to neglect the role that nuclear power can play in meeting our energy demands. While nuclear power often gets bad press because of a few high-profile incidents over the decades, the truth is that atomic energy is much safer than petroleum or coal-generated energy. The toxic pollution created by coal- and oil-fired plants actually kills and injures many more people than do rare nuclear energy mishaps. The space requirements of nuclear plants are but a fraction of the vast amounts of land required for the installation of solar photovoltaic arrays and wind-harnessing equipment. It’s true that some waste is generated during nuclear fission, but the quantities of waste products so released are miniscule and easily contained as opposed to the voluminous emissions generated by dirtier forms of energy generation.
The past year has seen public opinion shift in favor of decisive action to halt the deleterious effects of the heating of the earth’s atmosphere. Still, a lot of work needs to be done to convince ordinary people of the benefits of expanding our use of nuclear technology. In 2014, dozens of scientists published an open letter saying that nuclear energy “could…make a major, and perhaps, leading, contribution” to energy production going forward. This issue may become the next battleground of public environmental awareness and policy-making.
Every nuclear plant that’s kept in healthy operating condition means less pollution, fewer greenhouse gases, and more clean power for society. In recent years, state and federal mandates and incentives have encouraged growth in solar and wind, and statistics from ElectricityCompanies.org indicate that energy production solar and wind were at record highs in 2015. Still, nuclear power generates nearly 20 percent of all U.S. electricity currently whereas solar still sits at one percent. As a cost-effective, green, and reliable form of energy production, nuclear power could be the key to meeting our energy requirements in the medium term. Hoping expectantly for a future filled with sustainable electronics, economic prosperity, and comfortable temperatures is useless without a bridge to get us from where we are today to where we want to be tomorrow. As we reflect on this year’s Earth Day holiday, it’s important to understand how far nuclear energy has already taken us while recognizing the crucial role it plays in securing our clean energy future.
Editor's Note: For more information: The American Nuclear Society has published official Position Statements on Sustainable Development and on Nuclear Energy's Role in Climate Change Policy.
When posting your positive thoughts today in honor of Earth Day, please remember to use the hashtags #EarthDay and #ParisAgreement. Let's get our #pronuclear messages out there!
Ms. Piper is a science author from Chicago, Ill., with a strong interest in nuclear power as a clean energy source.