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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Eppich

Nuclear energy as the world’s next clean energy source

As the world approaches 1.5 degrees Celsius in warming by 2030, policymakers must start making carbon-aware policy decisions. The UN explains various effects of high levels of warming such as increased temperatures, rising ocean levels, biodiversity loss, 23.1 million people in poverty, and the deaths of 13 million people per year. According to the New York Times, Scientists have even found that the Arctic will be ice-free by 2030. Climate change’s effects are even a current reality, as Reuters and NPR report floods and global heatwaves with devastating results, killing over 90,000 people globally. 

While scientists and politicians worldwide have been more conscious of these problems, the United States’ carbon footprint is exorbitant. According to research by Roser et al., the United States emits the second most CO2 globally at 15% of global emissions and 5.3 billion tonnes of CO2 annually. The United States can reduce this problem in two key ways. First, by reducing our reliance on fossil fuels such as coal, and second, by using clean energy sources with high energy efficiency, like nuclear power.

Coal and black carbon are some of the most environmentally damaging energy sources used in the world. According to Statista, global coal combustion caused the release of 15 billion metric tons of CO2 in 2022 alone. Additionally, research from Ritchie et al found that coal was responsible for approximately 60 deaths per terawatt hour of energy via air pollution and coal mining accidents, and 820 tons of carbon emissions per gigawatt hour. Ritchie furthers, “...these estimates for fossil fuels are likely to be very conservative. They are based on power plants in Europe, which have good pollution controls... global death rates from fossil fuels based on the most recent research on air pollution are likely to be even higher.” What’s worse is that the United States uses a significant amount of this extremely harmful energy source. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, 20% of the United States' energy is sourced from coal, and as Statista data corroborates, is the third largest consumer of coal in the world. Based on data from the EPA and Statista, the United States emitted 882 million metric tons of CO2 from coal alone. According to Roberts in 2018, this cost the United States $4.1 billion. 

Knowing that coal is a harmful and inefficient energy source, we should seriously consider nuclear energy as a cleaner, safer, and more efficient alternative. According to research by Ritchie et al, Nuclear energy causes 0.03 deaths per terawatt hour of energy compared to the 60 deaths per terawatt hour of energy of coal. In other words, when using nuclear energy, 1 person would die every 25 years instead of the 25 deaths per year because of coal. Additionally, nuclear energy releases only 3 tons of carbon per gigawatt hour compared to the 820 tons of carbon released by coal. The Nuclear Energy Institute finds that nuclear energy reduces 470 million metric tons of CO2 per year, the effect of removing 100 million cars off the road, and that a pellet of uranium, the size of your fingertip, produces the same amount of energy produced by 1 ton of coal. 

Countries such as France have seen such success in their energy sectors. According to the World Nuclear Association, as of 2023, France derives a whopping 70% of its energy from nuclear power. The French Embassy finds that France has even been able to reduce its per capita carbon emissions past the United States’ 5 tons of emissions per capita to 2 tons per capita. Additionally, “There has also been a 75-percent decrease in sulfur dioxide, which is responsible for acid rain, and had France not converted to nuclear energy, the emissions of smog-creating nitrous oxide would be 20 percent higher.” If France, now the second largest producer of nuclear energy, can see so much success, even offsetting high oil prices in Europe, surely the United States will be able to have a similar level of environmental and economic success. 

However, nuclear energy comes with some potential concerns. Nuclear energy, while extremely effective in its positive climate impact, has had safety issues over the years. In 1986, Ukraine had a massive accident at its nuclear reactor in Chernobyl. Using such a clean and powerful energy comes with some tradeoffs. Nuclear energy has risks regarding its safety. However, since Chernobyl, the technology for nuclear energy has improved immensely. The World Nuclear Association finds that the nuclear energy industry has avoided potential nuclear scenarios in which the reactor core overheats and causes a meltdown. “In the 60-year history of civil nuclear power generation…there have been only three significant accidents at nuclear power plants.” Since Chernobyl, no deaths have occurred due to a commercial nuclear reactor incident. The injuries and deaths that occur are very few, are due to overexposure to uncontrolled nuclear material, and are contained within the reactors. The belief that nuclear energy is highly dangerous and could cause explosions as powerful as multiple hydrogen bombs at any moment is unrealistic. The probability of such meltdowns, thanks to modern technology, has dropped to nearly zero.

The issue of nuclear waste, possibly the biggest problem with nuclear energy, has also been mitigated by current technology. While it is not easy to store, and there are remaining risks of radioactive material leaking into soil, government regulations on radioactive waste are extremely stringent, and have taken all protocols necessary to safely store nuclear waste until the radioactivity levels decline sufficiently. The U.S. Energy Information Administration finds that most nuclear waste produced has low levels of radioactivity. Furthermore, spent fuel with higher levels of radioactivity are safely stored underground far below soil levels for thousands of years, until they are safe to remove, according to the World Nuclear Association. The concerns surrounding the safety of nuclear reactors and nuclear waste are understandable. Nuclear energy will never be a perfect energy source, but it may be the best that we have for the environment and an efficient energy economy.  

Climate change and the United States’ carbon footprint are not problems with overnight solutions. One of the best steps we can take in the right direction is by increasing nuclear energy usage and decreasing reliance on coal.


Zhong, Raymond. “Arctic Summer Could Be Practically Sea-Ice-Free by the 2030s.” The New York Times, June 6, 2023, sec. Climate.

Press, The Associated. “Pakistan’s Floods Have Killed More than 1,000. It’s Been Called a Climate Catastrophe.” NPR, August 28, 2022, sec. Asia.

Dickie, Gloria, and Gloria Dickie. “Why Some Heatwaves Prove Deadlier than Others.” Reuters, August 2, 2022, sec. Healthcare & Pharmaceuticals.

Nations, United. “Causes and Effects of Climate Change.” United Nations. Accessed March 30, 2024.

Ritchie, Hannah, and Max Roser. “CO₂ Emissions.” Our World in Data, January 22, 2024.

Statista. “Global Coal Use CO₂ Emissions 2022.” Accessed March 30, 2024.

Roberts, David. “Friendly Policies Keep US Oil and Coal Afloat Far More than We Thought.” Vox, October 6, 2017.

“Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) - U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).” Accessed March 30, 2024.

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“Chernobyl | Chernobyl Accident | Chernobyl Disaster - World Nuclear Association.” Accessed March 30, 2024.

Ritchie, Hannah, Pablo Rosado, and Max Roser. “Nuclear Energy.” Our World in Data, March 20, 2024.

Statista. “U.S. Coal Energy Consumption 2022.” Accessed March 30, 2024.

US EPA, OAR. “Frequent Questions: EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator.” Overviews and Factsheets, December 12, 2016.

Nuclear Energy Institute. “Nuclear Fuel.” Accessed March 30, 2024.

“Radioactive Wastes - Myths and Realities : World Nuclear Association - World Nuclear Association.” Accessed March 30, 2024.

Cover Image: “Advantages and Challenges of Nuclear Energy.” Accessed March 30, 2024.


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