MIT's nuclear power plant

Megan: Welcome to Possibly, where we take on huge problems like the future of our planet and use science to find everyday solutions.

I’m Megan Hall. 

Today we have a question from listener Alec Beckett. He asks: Should I be in favor of nuclear power? He says he knows about the risks, but he’s also heard that nuclear power is a clean source of energy. 

We had Isha Chawla and Molly Magid look into this question. Welcome Isha and Molly!

Isha: Hi Megan!

Molly: Hello!

Megan: So, could nuclear power be a realistic, efficient source of energy?  

Isha: Well, to find that out, we visited MIT’s Center for Advanced Nuclear Systems. It even has a nuclear reactor right on MIT’s campus!

Molly: Researchers use the reactor to study how to make nuclear power efficient and safe.

Megan: So, let’s start with the basics-  how does nuclear power work?

Isha: Well, Koroush Shrivan, a professor in the department, explained the process this way-

Koroush: We basically take uranium, which is commonly found in the earth’s crust and split it with the help of a neutron. That process creates energy.

Molly: After that, it’s pretty similar to a traditional power plant. Heat from the reaction is used to boil water, which creates steam to move a turbine, which creates electricity.

Isha: But unlike natural gas or coal power plants, nuclear power plants produce ZERO greenhouse gas emissions during operation!

Megan: Wow! So why hasn’t nuclear taken off as a way to produce clean energy?

Isha: To some extent, it has, especially in other countries. France meets 70% of its electricity needs with nuclear power.

Molly: But here in the US, we haven’t embraced nuclear power in the same way. In fact, it’s been nearly 30 years since the United States had a new nuclear reactor.  

Isha: A lot of Americans think nuclear power isn’t safe.

Megan: Is it safe?

Molly: Well, Koroush says modern nuclear plants are much safer than the older versions, like the one that melted down in Chernobyl. 

Isha: He says for these newer power plants, the risk of a severe accident 

Koroush:  Is like 10 to the minus six-level 

Isha: That’s a one in a million chance. 

Molly: And even then, an accident would likely just lead to an evacuation of the plant, not a release of dangerous radioactive materials.

Megan: Ok, but what about nuclear waste from those plants? Do we have a safe way to store it? 

Isha:  Some countries, like France, recycle and reuse their spent fuel. That option is safer, but more expensive. 

Molly: In the US, we just store our nuclear waste in large containers called dry casks.

Megan: How safe are these casks?

Isha: According to Jacopo Boungiorno the head of MIT’s Center for Advanced Nuclear Systems,  the casks can safely store nuclear waste for about 50-100 years. 

Jacopo: So the dry cask is not a permanent solution, but it buys you time to decide where you ultimately want to do with that fuel.

Megan: And does the US have a plan for what to do with that fuel?

Molly: Well, various administrations have tried to create a central facility for the country’s nuclear waste in a place called Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

Isha: But there is a lot of debate about how safe the site is, and Nevada residents are opposed to the project. 

Molly: Plus, other states don’t want the government trucking those dry casks of nuclear waste through their highways. 

Megan: So, what’s the answer to Alec’s question? Should we look to nuclear power to help us generate clean energy?

Isha: Well, it would certainly help to have a stable source of renewable energy. We have other options, like wind and solar, but the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow.

Molly: On the other hand, nuclear plants still pose some safety risks, especially when we lack a long term plan for storing or recycling our radioactive waste. 

Isla: There isn’t really an easy answer.

Megan: Great! Thanks for looking into this Isha+Molly. 

That’s it for today. For more information or to ask a question about the way you recycle, use energy, or make any other choice that affects the planet, go to “the public’s radio dot org slash possibly.” Or subscribe to Possibly wherever you get your podcasts. 

Possibly is a co-production of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society and the Public’s Radio.

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