America Should Adopt Renewable Energy, But Only If It's Nuclear 06/18/2021

The Premise

The increasing popularity of electric vehicles in the United States represents a watershed moment in the country's energy policy. Since 2011, electric vehicles accounted for “one-tenth of one percent of all new light-duty vehicle sales,”[^1] their sales are up over 1000 percent through 2019. This should suggest the increasing popularity of switching away from fossil fuels that make up "62% of total U.S. transportation energy use in 2020"[^2]. This popularity shift in automobile energy consumption type paired with anticipated legislature could further disincentive the use of fossil fuels. Consumers are in need of natural alternatives that could fill in the energy gap that leaving fossil fuels would bring. Energy sources like solar, hydro-electric, wind and nuclear are some that fall under that umbrella. Those alternatives mostly fall within the umbrella of "renewable".

The Argument

I would like to explore these different energy solutions, specifically solar and nuclear power, and show the pros and cons of each option. My hope is to create a compelling argument as to why nuclear power, and a combination of other renewables other than solar power, is the best solution that benefits the United States and its people while also showing the advantages nuclear power will have over traditional fossil fuel methods.


The shift away from fossil fuels for the United States is going to be a long and tedious process. I will not be covering the logistics around the United States' shift toward renewables, there are just too many factors to fit into a post of this nature. The use of oil being so closely tied to the value of the American dollar, the infrastructure in place that caters to fossil fuels and the furthered macro-economics that comes with having a world power give up an energy source. These are just a few of the reasons that just begin to scrape the surface of the Unites States' connection to fossil fuels.

Solar Power

Solar power has come into the spot light for its potential as a renewable energy source. Tremendous hype has been generated around solar powered cars, starting in 2009 with the win of the Tokai Challenger. The solar powered car whose team advisor said "that a car using silicon solar cells would be able to achieve an average speed of only 86 km/h compared with the Tokai Challenger's 100 km/h."[^6]. Along with statistics that alluded to a world that was solar powered many major companies in recent years have tied the strength of popular topics of sustainable energy, being independent of power companies, and electric cars, Tesla being one of the most popular to do this. Tesla has shown keen interest in solar energy by selling, along with the idea of their cars, the "Solar Roof" [^7]; a set of solar panel integrated roof tiles that would fit into the tesla suite of car, battery and of course a way to charge the aforementioned.

Despite solar energy creating a positive main stream view around renewables that filling the void leaving fossil fuels will create I believe that it takes away from a more suitable long term solution of nuclear power. This world view shift is short sited and doesnt take into account the pros and cons of solar power compared to that of its nuclear power counterpart. However, before we dive in, lets explore what solar has done right.

As said before there has been a massive popularity shift toward clean energy and with that has come an increase in demand and jobs. "As of 2020, more than 230,000 Americans work in solar at more than 10,000 companies in every U.S. state" [^8] which is confirmed by the expected "Growth rate from 2016 to 2026: 105 percent"[^9]. Additionally there has been massive efficiency improvements where "Solar panel efficiency has increased from 6% in 1954 to over 40% on high-efficiency panels today."[^10]. Among many other positives that solar power brings we also see that the amount of power solar produces where "U.S. solar power capacity has grown to an estimated 97.2 gigawatts"[^11].

Although all of these factors have massive positive repercussions for the United States I believe that the very use of these solar systems, also known as photovoltaics, is history in the making to repeat itself. At the time of June, 2021 the countries that produce the most silicon, the main ingredient in the making of photovoltaics systems, is as followed:

(scale is in terms of thousands of tons per year)[^12] [^13]
China 4,500
Russia 600
Norway 370
United States 320

I question why the United States would, upon looking at the new horizon of renewables, willingly base their energy infrastructure that needs resources that would come from its leading competitor and future potential major world super power. This conundrum seems awfully similar to the United States' need for fossil fuels which resulted in the past 2-3 decades of, based on General Frank's remarks of the eight objectives of the United States invasion of Iraq, "to secure Iraq's oil fields and resources"[^14].

Would it not seem intuitive to avoid such conflict with another leading power, like China, by not needing to rely on their resources and thus preemptively avoid future conflict?

However, lets say you are ok to take the cost of worsening international relations with a country that has less than favorable relations with the United States. What can incentivize you to avoid the use of solar power as United States major resource?

Nuclear Power

The use of nuclear power seems like an obvious transition that can quite easily fill the position fossil fuels currently has while also having advantages that out shine competing renewable energy solutions. However, there is social stigma surrounding nuclear power; obvious quarrels come up when bringing up ideas surrounding nuclear power like the safety of having plants, what to do with the waste and the change of infrastructure needed to implement them.

First, let me introduce or perhaps re-introduce you to the unparalleled benefits of nuclear power. Nuclear "generates nearly 800 billion kilowatt hours of electricity each year"[^2] compared to its solar counterpart (as of 2018) that could generate only 66 billion kilowatt hours[^15]. Additionally, due to the reliability that comes with nuclear power, power plants are able to run significantly longer; "In the United States in 2016, nuclear power plants, which generated almost 20 percent of U.S. electricity, had an average capacity factor of 92.3 percent, meaning they operated at full power on 336 out of 365 days per year"[^1]. These statistics completely dwarf that of solar power where "solar electricity arrays only (delivered power) 25.1 percent of the time (92 days per year)"[^1]. This massive difference in efficiency and energy output is also coupled with the real estate to power ratio cost that nuclear power excels at; "A typical 1,000-megawatt nuclear facility in the United States needs a little more than 1 square mile to operate... and solar photovoltaic plants require 75 times more space."[^5]. The same resource continues on with "To put that in perspective, you would need more than 3 million solar panels to produce the same amount of power as a typical commercial reactor" [^5].

Much like solar power, there are many other aspects that have clear benefits to the public, all of which are important but show a less critical difference between itself and solar power.

Of course nuclear power comes with concerns and disadvantages. One of which is the potential jobs that it can maintain. There is worry that as safer more modular reactor alternatives begin to overtake the traditional larger reactors that there will be less potential jobs. This couldnt be further from the truth, currently, nuclear power and secondary jobs surrounding it employ 475,000 people [^3]. Additionally, we see that during the construction phase of these power plants, modular or otherwise, there can be up to 3,500 people employed[^2] resulting in 800 permanent jobs for modular facilities[^2] and up to 1,000 for traditional larger facilities[^3]. In addition to these concerns are obvious concerns about the safety, use and disposal of radioactive material. We see that due in part from uranium's incredible potential energy that a uranium pellet (about an inch tall) has the same potential energy as 1 ton of coal or 120 gallons of gasoline[^5]. This massive difference in physical waste results in a surprisingly small amount of waste; "All of the used nuclear fuel produced by the U.S. nuclear energy industry over the last 60 years could fit on a football field at a depth of less than 10 yards!"[^5]. Furthermore, this waste that is available can be reprocessed in order to be used operate more rigorous reactors, or even recycled [^4]. However, lets say that we want to compare the difference of radiation released by nuclear reactors compared to that of fossil fuels that mine the likes of photovoltaics. It is found that the burning of coal results in more released radiation than that of a nuclear power plant due in part from nuclear powers self contained, non-pollutant system [^1].


As we transition into an age that is not powered on fossil fuels but one that is predominantly electric I believe that is should be clear that renewables should power us into this electric age. However, not all renewables are created equal and the adoption of which ever resource will define how we power ourselves and our relations in this new age. However, regardless of which renewable we decide upon it should be understood that we will and should never rely on just one resource. There is strength in diversity and energy is no exception to this rule. My only hope is that nuclear power will not remain a 20% contributor to the net energy produced by energy type.


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