Nuclear Energy: a Convenient Solution to an Inconvenient Truth?
Last Thursday night, students gathered in Hallock Auditorium to view The Nuclear Option, a film about nuclear energy by Robby Tinker, OC ’06.
Tinker, frustrated with the lack of viable solutions for the current energy crisis, decided to shoot this documentary for his independent senior project with Oberlin physics professor John Scofield. Incidentally, Scofield also makes scattered appearances throughout the film, extolling the virtues of nuclear energy.
The Nuclear Option is intended as a sort of sequel to An Inconvenient Truth, which Tinker believes succeeded in outlining the current problem that the world is facing, but did not provide any solutions.
According to Tinker, the only well-known alternative to fossil fuels at the moment is green energy. Green energy typically refers to renewable, non-polluting energy sources, like wind or solar power. However, green energy cannot even begin to cover the world’s energy needs. It is inefficient and expensive, and producing it on a large scale would be highly impractical.
The Nuclear Option is intended to convince viewers that nuclear energy would be an excellent, practical solution to global warming. Production of nuclear energy costs about the same as that of fossil fuels; solar energy is about five times more expensive. Nuclear energy also generates 2,000 fewer tons of waste than fossil fuels.
Furthermore, the waste from nuclear energy is packed away in containers and stored where it will not endanger anyone, whereas the waste from fossil fuels seeps into the atmosphere and harms the delicate planetary balance.
Controversy still surrounds the use of nuclear energy. Some critics think having large barrels of nuclear waste sitting around could be a disaster. Barrels may leak underground, be destroyed in a car accident during transport or be stolen by terrorists.
However, a promotional clip in the documentary detailed the precautions engineers have taken to avoid this. Used nuclear waste can be sealed up in many layers of heavy metal. These containers have been rigorously tested and can withstand being dropped from a distance onto concrete or engulfed in extremely hot fires, among other things. The storage facilities are highly guarded to prevent anyone from stealing and making ill use of nuclear waste.
Another issue opponents bring up is the radiation from nuclear power plants, which they fear will cause terrible diseases. It turns out that coal plants release more radiation than nuclear plants do. In fact, there is radiation everywhere; most is found in the soil, but dental X-rays also contribute some. Therefore, living near a nuclear power plant does not expose you to any more radiation than any other residential location.
So what is preventing nuclear energy from becoming our primary source of energy?
According to the documentary, no matter how much evidence science collects to dispel fears about radiation and nuclear waste, many people will still be afraid of it. Also, no state is willing to become host to a storage facility for nuclear waste.
But finally, and worst of all, there are the politics. Alternative energy projects are picked up, only to be abandoned by the next administration. Four-year presidential terms do not give enough time to achieve something concrete and lasting. And in general, the U.S. government does not want to put out the funding required to experiment with nuclear energy.
Nuclear energy is not the perfect source of energy, but Tinker thinks that it is the closest we’ve come so far. It is cheap, sustainable and non-polluting.
If Tinker has his way, his documentary will inspire people to conduct their own research on nuclear energy and make their own decisions.
He said that he “didn’t want [his film] to be dogmatic.”
It is easy to see what he hopes the audience will understand: It is high time that nuclear energy, the energy of the future, became a reality.