Natural gas has a formidable opponent in nuclear energy

This blog post was originally published by a student studying abroad in Angers, France. The theme this summer is sustainability and the professors and students are exploring all the ways France is a leader in environmental conservation and sustainability. You can read more about the students’ time in France online at Sustainability in Angers, France.

I’m going to go ahead and assume that the majority (if not all) people reading this blog post are American. If you pay attention to current events, and you’re American, then you know that we aren’t doing so hot in the emissions realm. We can honestly say that the United States hasn’t been particularly active in maintaining high standards for our energy sources. France consumes energy differently than we do in the U.S and from a different source. France’s electricity production is primarily derived from nuclear energy, 80% to be exact. Whereas the U.S only has 20% of its electricity production sourced from nuclear energy, and 63% from natural gas. I want to highlight the advantages of nuclear energy, as well as compare it to our reliance on natural gas in the U.S.

To begin, I’d like to say that Americans can pat ourselves on the back for deserting coal in favor of natural gas for production. An efficient natural gas power plant can be expected to emit between 50 and 60% less carbon dioxide (CO2) than a coal plant. We significantly lessen our nitrogen oxide (NOx) production when we choose natural gas over coal. In light of these numbers, I can promise you that natural gas is more efficient than coal, but that doesn’t mean that we couldn’t do better. Extracting, refining, and distributing natural gas is more than disruptive. People living locally to drilling sites are more likely to experience health problems than those who live further away from drilling sites. Additionally, drilling for natural gas harms ecosystems and isn’t efficient for land usage. Erosion, contamination of our aquatic systems, and permanently disrupting habitats are only a few of the heavily weighted concerns regarding natural gas extraction. So, if we aren’t going to go from coal to renewable energy, then what are we going to do? I think that from natural gas, nuclear energy is a viable option for our main source of electricity production because it’s way more sustainable than natural gas. How much better is nuclear power compared to natural gas, though? Nuclear power is roughly 8,000 times more efficient than natural gas and its greenhouse gas emissions are practically non-existent.

Uranium is the most popular element used in nuclear fission. It’s found in the earth’s crust and it’s even more common than silver. The U.S imported 35% of the Uranium we used from Canada in 2017,  and we also import about 40% of our crude oil from Canada. We could increase our importation of Uranium from Canada whilst reducing the crude oil we take and keep the economy between our two countries steady and strong. To be honest, I’m not the biggest fan of mining for another resource, and I think we need to set our focus on a renewable source rather than a non-renewable one. The exciting thing about nuclear energy is that we haven’t exhausted all of its potential reactors. Thorium is another element that is greener and more common compared to Uranium and countries like Russia and China have already begun to plan for a switch to Thorium. Aside from Thorium, there is a promising future with nuclear fusion (not fission, fusion). Nuclear fusion would provide us with unlimited energy and we’re not far off from more breakthroughs in nuclear fusion technology. Additionally, nuclear energy can work with renewables like wind and solar power to create a kind of highly efficient and eco-friendly synergy. The French government funds a lot of research for nuclear power since it’s proven to be such a versatile and sustainable source of energy.

You’re probably thinking that I’ve planned to avoid jumping into the whole radioactive waste disposal problem that comes with nuclear power plants. As many people know, nuclear power plants pose a risk. When we think of Chernobyl it’s hard to be enticed by all of the positivity that comes from nuclear power. Accidents do happen, but France has successfully mitigated a lot of the threats that nuclear power plants pose by being careful, resourceful, and taking preventative measures. Not all of the funding for research on nuclear energy in France goes to innovation but to efficient and safe disposal. There’s ongoing construction in the Champagne-Ardenne region of France half a kilometer underground with walls of steel and sprayed concrete surrounded by clay rocks. It’s one of the most feasible options for long-term storage of highly radioactive waste but the project isn’t estimated to be ready until 2025. In France, they also recycle the parts of nuclear waste that can be useful until there’s no longer anything left to use. Clearly, the problem of disposing of radioactive waste is a big one, but France has proven so far that proper management and precaution with nuclear energy prevents meltdowns (like Chernobyl).

France already has goals to turn towards more renewable forms of energy in the future to take on the level of production that their nuclear power plants are now. The greatly reduced emissions and higher efficiency are incredible but the tradeoff being lots of highly radioactive waste that we don’t yet know how to deal with is just burden-shifting. Still, 90% of the electricity here in France is carbon-free and that’s a big accomplishment that I think the U.S should try and pursue.

Story by Chloë Seminet ’20