When you consider any respectable MRS degree pursuant, there’s a black-gold standard of success: the oil mogul. Whether it’s Eike Batista, the richest man in Brazil, or Mukesh Ambani, his Indian counterpart with a net worth of $22.3 billion, oil, gas and mining magnates dominate the rankings of billionaires on Forbes.
It’s no secret why fossil fuels are so lucrative. Relatively low front-end costs and huge demand allowed anybody able to control oil fields or extraction and production in the early 20th century to thrive. Even today, when there is a pervasive awareness of environmental issues posed by fossil fuel-burning power plants, it’s hard to look at the price tag on a kilowatt-hour of coal and say, “Four cents? No thanks; I’d really rather spend a little more.” There’s not enough momentum in the United States to move forward away from conventional energy. Despite this, with a little innovation and a refocusing of energy perceptions, a new option can be brought to the table: nuclear.
Over the past few years, nuclear energy has picked up quite the unfortunate rep. In 2010 when a terrifying earthquake-tsunami combination caused the meltdown of three reactors in Fukushima, Japan, the world was reminded of the power behind nuclear technology and why it has applications in the military sector. Widespread health concerns with radioactive iodine and cesium isotopes floating around the Japanese countryside were well publicized. In the aftermath of the incident, Germany even announced its belief that the use of nuclear energy has no place in commercial energy production.
Any move to introduce nuclear energy as a legitimate source of production would require huge amounts of public support, but we continue to associate nuclear energy with Chernobyl, the burgeoning Iranian weapons program and that terrible chill that runs down our spines when we hear George W. Bush even try to say “nuclear.”
But nuclear energy’s poor public image is just that—a poor image. In reality, nuclear safety is scary by nature, but not a real threat. Accidents are statistically unlikely and most modern nuclear reactors have passive security systems. In the case of a slight disturbance, no manual intervention is required because mechanisms relying on gravity or natural convection will eliminate the risk of meltdown. The third generation nuclear reactors have been designed to operate at high efficiency, creating optimal amounts of electricity while using a minimum amount of fuel and reducing waste. Finland is close to finishing one of the first long-term storage facilities for nuclear waste—a no-surveillance, no-maintenance setup 500 meters underground. The collective ability to provide safe nuclear energy is present. It’s just not being fully exploited.
On top of all of its horror film-esque attributes, nuclear energy is a huge pain when it comes to starting from scratch. Building a plant itself with all of the requisite safety and efficiency features is a huge capital investment, and the licensing process is not easy. Any industry that seeks to supply an entire country with the ability to read at night or charge their infinite various appliances must be at its core based upon profit. An industry that receives capital investment and is subsequently propped up by governmental subsidies can only last as long as the subsidies themselves; thus, the industry becomes dependent on political fluctuations. So isn’t it great that nuclear energy represents a private venture that is just as economically sustainable as current baseload power production?
Nuclear energy really is no more expensive than fossil fuels. When it comes to the price per kilowatt-hour of energy produced, nuclear energy costs the same as coal, a whopping 4 cents. This is slightly misrepresentative because it describes a plant that has been in operation—it doesn’t depict the massive initial investment or the years and years of waiting before the first return on investment. If a carbon tax were ever actually incurred in the United States, however, then nuclear energy would surge ahead in cost efficiency. Efficient nuclear plants produce .01 percent of the carbon emissions of coal power plants, and the overall societal costs from health issues and climate change without a legislative tax are estimated to be 25 times more costly in coal generation.
Nuclear energy is the answer to many energy production problems in the United States; it’s both where we need to go and where I firmly believe we will end up. With that, here’s my call to Duke students and graduates and whatever other ambitious, intelligent individuals my column will reach: Go nuclear. Make it profitable. Environmental protection and the economic stimulus of domestic production are pretty appealing possibilities. Not to mention the next generation of Batistas and Ambanis, of innovators and businessmen, has some openings. So do you want to make billions but retain your “wanting to make a difference in the world” inner flower child? Because I’m willing to bet that in 20 years, Forbes will feature a new demographic: those who were willing to bet on nuclear energy.
Lydia Thurman is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs every other Wednesday. You can follow Lydia on Twitter @ThurmanLydia.