Are we looking the wrong way for our energy sources?

With renewable energy becoming more mainstream as headlines describing new effects of climate change are reported daily, images of solar & wind farms may please the conscience, and create some optimism about the battle against climate change. More businesses and homes are turning to solar power, and more hillsides are being converted into wind farms, with people trying to do what they can to turn away from fossil fuels. But an alternative, and possibly a better solution to our energy and pollution woes is not something of the future; it could very well be something we’ve already explored in the past.

Solar and Wind Power aren’t as sustainable on a large scale

Before addressing what can be the solution to our energy crisis, we must first reevaluate what we know about existing forms of renewable energy. Solar panels are all the rage nowadays, especially in the Bay Area. Homes and businesses in Silicon Valley are taking advantage of the California sun, and installing solar panels on roofs to cut electricity costs and “save the environment”. Unbeknownst to many, commonly used solar panels can have some dangerous environmental consequences.

The manufacturing of solar panels involves a myriad of toxic chemicals, such as lead, Sulfur Hexafluoride (a greenhouse gas 23,000 times more potent than Carbon Dioxide), and Cadmium (a carcinogen). The lifespan of a silicon panel made in the U.S. is 15 years. However, solar panels made in China -whose lifespans are only 5 years — are being used more frequently, as they’re seen as a cheaper alternative, whose lives only span 5 years. Either way, once a solar panel outlives its usefulness, its contents can leak into the soil and water, damaging both ecosystems and humans alike. This does not mean that I’m against solar power at all- it’s still better for our environment than fossil fuels. It’s important to note the environmental effects that solar energy may have. Until technological innovation presents a less problematic supply chain, we can look to other avenues for clean alternatives to fossil fuels.

If not solar energy, wind power is the solution that typically comes to mind. It creates jobs, allows farms to be repurposed, and has a lower carbon footprint. Wind power may seem like a suitable alternative to solar power, but it has its own drawbacks. This type of power is only really suited to coastal areas, which historically receive abundant amounts of wind. Wind farms require a lot of land and upfront capital investment, which is not always available for less economically developed areas. These farms pose a threat to wildlife as well, greatly reducing local bird and bat populations. The biggest problem with wind power is the inconsistency of wind. Even in coastal areas, the amount of wind received varies daily, and wind is not reliable enough to be used as a base source of power for any area. It is best served as a complement to another base source of energy.

So what’s the solution?

The solution to our problem is not some complex futuristic technology that we’re waiting for Elon Musk to invent. In fact, the solution is something rooted in our past: nuclear energy.

Since its inception, nuclear energy has been embroiled in controversy. Even seeing the words “nuclear energy” evoke gruesome images of Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Three Mile Island. When handled the wrong way or taken from the wrong source, nuclear power can have dangerous consequences. But the facts can’t be ignored.

Including these large scale disasters and long-term radiation effects, nuclear power still causes fewer deaths per unit than fossil fuels or natural gas. Nuclear power also has the benefit of emitting the least Carbon Dioxide when compared to Coal, Oil, Natural Gas, Solar, and Wind. A smaller Carbon output is essential for the fight against the looming threat of climate change. The threat of meltdowns and the issue of storing spent rods are an understandable cause for concern, but these issues are minimized if we use nuclear power the right way.

Most nuclear energy today relies on Uranium, a rare-earth element that is relatively scarce. For the reaction to occur, the uranium needs to be placed under lots of pressure, which if gone wrong can lead to meltdowns, precursors to environmental disasters such as Chernobyl. It is also spent easily, resulting in the storage problem covered in the media. But there is an alternative to Uranium which can be the base source of power here in the United States.

Nuclear power derived from Thorium was an idea explored decades ago, which needs reevaluation now. Thorium is far more abundant than Uranium, which decreases the environmental impact of mining for Uranium. Thorium also does not cause meltdowns the same way Uranium can. Thorium nuclear fission is caused by adding neutrons to the isotope Thorium-232, and the reaction can be stopped by depriving the Thorium of its source of neutrons. Allowing reactions to be easily stopped highly reduces the risk of meltdowns, lowering the chances of another Chernobyl from occurring.

Thorium nuclear fission also produces about 1,000 times less waste from uranium, with that waste also being 10,000 times less toxic than that produced by uranium nuclear fission. That waste can also be recycled and used into future reactions, and what can’t be recycled is still contained, resulting in no leaks that can damage ecosystems (*cough cough*, solar panels).

Despite being superior to Uranium, a common qualm with Thorium power is the cost.

In what way is this going to be cost-effective?

One issue is the cost of building such infrastructure, as well as the cost of the Thorium itself. Many wonder that because Thorium is not widely used, the cost of using it will be greatly elevated compared to Uranium. However, Professor Guido Mazzini from the University of Pisa, along with a team of nuclear scientists, found that

Their findings cast aside doubts of the cost of using Thorium power as an energy source, further solidifying itself as the energy source the United States needs to turn to.

If Thorium is this good, why do we still use Uranium?

It all boils down to the Cold War. It’s widely known that the intended use of nuclear energy was not to power our homes but to create weapons of mass destruction. Uranium could be used to create weapons-grade plutonium, which would then have the power to level cities, as shown by Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Scientists then discovered that this same process generates harnessable energy, which would later be used as an alternative energy source (to avoid repetition of power in our homes). Thorium does not have the same explosive power that Uranium does (meaning it decreases the likelihood of meltdowns!), so it was left in the dust. We took Uranium and never looked back.

The idea of using Thorium today is nothing new, however.

There’s already a precedent

If we look East, India and China have their own goals when it comes to Thorium-based nuclear power. That’s a significant amount of the world’s population committing to drawing power from Thorium, which greatly decreases our global Carbon output. However, in order to stop the effects of climate change from wreaking havoc on the world, we need to go Carbon Neutral as soon as possible. It’s time for the United States, the 2nd highest country in electricity use, to power its homes and business the right way.

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Originally published here on September 1st, 2019.



Sustainability & Tech Enthusiast

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