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PIK high-flux beam research reactor at the Konstantinov Institute of Nuclear Physics Peter Kovalev\TASS via Getty Images

Rediscovering the Promise of Nuclear Power

Nuclear power has become a kind of renewable-energy bogeyman, with radiation presented as a source of acute and immediate danger to communities and the environment. But fears about radiation are vastly exaggerated, and the potential of nuclear power is unmatched by other renewables.

OXFORD – At the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, world leaders at last seemed to recognize the reality of climate change. But the response they are pursuing is fundamentally flawed, given its dependence on “renewable energy sources” – such as solar, hydro, and wind power, as well as biofuels – that actually damage nature. Ironically, the world’s best bet to achieve the Paris agreement’s goals is to rely on an energy source that is often demonized: nuclear power.

Water, wind, and solar power cannot reliably provide energy on the scale required for a modern economy. One kilogram (2.2 pounds) of water behind a dam that is 100 meters (328 feet) high can provide just 1/3,600 kilowatt hours of energy. One kilogram of coal, by contrast, provides about 7 kWh of energy – 20,000 times more.

A hydroelectric scheme would thus have to be enormous to generate the same amount of energy as a coal-fired equivalent, implying high environmental and human costs. To build the largest existing hydroelectric project – the Three Gorges reservoir on the Yangtze River, which stretches for 600 kilometers (373 miles) – 1.3 million people were relocated, as 13 cities, 140 towns, and 1,350 villages were inundated.

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