There’s still a lot of controversy surrounding nuclear energy here in the United States. People often fail to realize that nuclear energy is a zero-emission, clean energy source.

I recently had the opportunity to visit the Burlington Nuclear Engineering Laboratory to learn more about the production of nuclear energy, and it’s clear to me that, fundamentally, more nuclear power is good for the environment.

During my visit, my group was able to see the 1-MW pool-type Pulstar Nuclear Research reactor.  After the plant supervisor explained how the reactor worked, we were permitted to see the reactor’s core. We were able to look down into the reactor pool, where the water essentially acts as a biological shield, with hydrogen absorbing and deflecting the radiation bouncing against it. After seeing how everything works firsthand, I have concluded that nuclear energy is, in fact, very safe. 

As a young person, I’m deeply concerned with climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, and nuclear energy provides a path forward. U.S. greenhouse gas emissions totaled 5,130 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents in 2019. This is the leading factor in why we need to deploy more nuclear energy. By doing so, we can build a future with abundant energy and keep this planet inhabitable for future generations.

Nuclear energy, however, is not without its challenges. Unfortunately, plants can be expensive to build, running at roughly $12.1 billion. Although nuclear plant construction is exorbitant, core reactors are cheap to operate and prove to be very dependable, given that they can run under nearly all conditions

The upfront cost is primarily due to arduous U.S. regulations. It will be essential to remove unnecessary barriers to nuclear energy if the U.S. hopes to maintain global leadership in nuclear power. With regulatory reform for nuclear reactors, the U.S. could meet clean, reliable electricity needs, global emission reduction objectives, and U.S. national security objectives. Ongoing public policy reforms, similar to the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act, have pushed the NRC to make enhancements, yet substantially more should be possible. Key regions for additional change incorporate natural guidelines, staffing, and security rules.

With renewable sources such as solar and wind energy, the output can only be produced during daylight hours or windy conditions. While emerging battery storage technology could improve this intermittency, this is a challenge nuclear energy does not have to contend with. Additionally, solar panels are built with critical minerals, an example being selenium. The supply of these minerals is finite and could eventually be exhausted if solar panel manufacturers continue to extract them at an accelerating pace. In contrast, we have an incredibly abundant supply of uranium, which is needed for nuclear power. 

Although nuclear energy continues to be controversial, after touring one in person and doing my research, I believe nuclear energy to be an effective, safe alternative energy source.  There’s no doubt that more nuclear energy capacity should be implemented in a timely manner. 

Beth Reinhardt is a member of the American Conservation Coalition based in Lawndale, North Carolina. She visited the Burlington Nuclear Engineering Laboratory with other ACC activists.