If you cross Amsterdam Avenue, it is tough to miss risk-seeking bikers speeding around on their e-bikes, likely delivering meals to hungry students. If you order an Uber to avoid the cold and slippery January sidewalks, there is a chance you will step into a Tesla.

End-user products are shifting to more energy efficient and environmentally friendly electric engines and drive trains, mitigating localized pollution, and presumably decreasing carbon emissions and fuel consumption. However, the electricity used to charge e-bikes and Teslas comes from somewhere: the electric grid. The gird, in turn, is supplied with energy from a mixture of coal, gas, oil, solar, wind, hydro, and nuclear sources.[1]

As a simplified example, the Department of Energy states that electric vehicles (EVs) are 77% efficient and combustion vehicles are 12-30% efficient.[2] The curious point is their qualification of EV efficiency as calculated based on energy “from the grid to power at the wheels,” whereas combustion vehicle efficiency is calculated based on “energy stored in the gasoline to power at the wheels.”[3] Unfortunately, calculating energy efficiency from the grid to the wheels of an EV is not a meaningful comparison against the overall efficiency of a gasoline-powered car. The electricity in the grid does not magically appear, it needs to be produced.

Energy production has inefficiencies and losses. Gas, oil, and coal need to burn, the wind needs to blow, the water needs to flow, and the sun needs to shine to produce electricity for the grid. With all of these sources combined, the primary energy source consumption conversion to electricity for use in the grid to charge an EV is about 40% efficient.[4] So, in an apple to apples comparison, EVs and combustion cars are roughly equal in overall efficiency with, on the up side, about 30% of the energy produced by the primary energy source translated into power at the wheels.[5]

An EV’s advantage is dependent on the grid itself utilizing green energy sources. The magnitude of the environmental benefit of EVs is largely proportional to the fraction of energy produced by green energy sources for that particular grid.

The point is, while, undeniably, the shift to renewable energies is a boon for wellbeing and energy efficiency, complications remain. So long as we remain dependent on coal, oil, and gas as primary energy sources, the benefits of environmentally friendly end-user products are undermined.

However, renewable energy sources cannot fully compensate for the functionality of fossil fuels because of issues surrounding environmental dependence, energy storage, and energy production density. We need an energy source to complement renewables, and that energy source should be nuclear.

Environmental Dependence

A key distinction in the functionality of an energy source is its ability, or inability, to provide energy “on-demand.” When you plug your phone into a charger at 2% battery, you expect your phone to start charging immediately, otherwise it will die and you will miss your mom’s call. Unfortunately, most renewable energy sources, like solar and wind, are environmentally dependent. An advantage of traditional sources like coal, gas, and oil is that they provide energy, day or night, whenever a load is placed on the grid.

Unfortunately, energy consumption increases in the evening, when the sun is not shining in winter months, peaking between 5:30 pm and 7:30 pm.[6] Similarly, the wind does not always blow. Weather patterns, as with any fluid flow, are notoriously unpredictable.

Without the capacity to store energy accumulated during the day, solar would be useless to support the grid during peak hours for vast parts of the year, and, without an on-demand energy source, or efficient energy storage, it becomes a question of how frequently other renewables like wind and hydro fail to pick up the slack.

Nuclear, however, functions as an on-demand energy source. Placing a load on a nuclear plant increases the heat output of the reactor, which in turn provides the necessary power to support the system loading.

Energy Storage

Batteries provide a reservoir of energy that can meet the baseload needs of the grid. However, batteries have their own drawbacks that complicate their use. At a surface level, mining lithium, a preferred metal for battery use, is astoundingly resource intensive, using 500,000 gallons of water to produce one ton of lithium.[7] Additionally, this water and its run-off can be contaminated with toxic chemicals used in the separation process, impacting local water supplies.[8]

Further, there are geopolitical implications in rare metal reliance for battery production, and of course, the same holds true for fossil fuels. The United States is largely dependent on lithium production in countries like Bolivia, with substantial human rights issues;[9] similarly, the United States’ ties to Saudi Arabia, another state with significant human rights concerns, are arguably driven by fossil fuel needs.[10]

Nuclear, as an on demand energy source, mitigates the need for batteries to provide the background load when renewables are underproducing. While batteries remain an integral part of any energy production and transportation system, the volume of batteries needed, and therefore materials like lithium, would be reduced.

Further, Canada and Australia are two of the world’s three largest producers of uranium for use in energy production.[11] Both countries are allies with liberal human rights ideologies, permitting the United States to shift away from a habit of sacrificing ethics for economic growth.

Energy Production Density

To power the United Kingdom with wind would require covering 17% of the country’s land with turbines.[12] Solar would require covering 3% with panels.[13] All for an inconsistent energy source. The question remains to be answered as to how much of the nation’s energy consumption these sources can practicably provide, but population density is a determining factor in their efficacy.

Considering high density areas like New York City, vast swaths of land in the greater metropolitan area would have to be altered to support wind farms and solar panels to supply the magnitude of energy required for the city’s population. These changes would arguably undermine the environmental benefits renewable energies are purported to effect, requiring clear cutting of land and other alterations of the local environment. Wind and solar farms are eyesores at best, and destructive of large parts of the natural environment at worst.[14]

While any new infrastructure is necessarily going to affect the landscape, more energy dense resources like nuclear plants minimize their land footprint, preserving the natural beauty of ridgelines and fields across America. This beauty is what renewables are intended to protect and preserve, not destroy and replace.

Dispelling Concern Over Nuclear Energy

It is undeniable that we need an on-demand, dense energy source to compensate for the weaknesses of renewables. The question really resolves into which: do we stick with fossil fuels, or shift to nuclear? The oft quoted critiques of nuclear energy are the inevitable citations to the Fukushima and Chernobyl nuclear accidents, and nuclear waste storage.

Nuclear Accidents

Energy production is dangerous. There are no two ways about it. The key here, however, is perspective. For example, on August 8th, 1975, there were at least 170,000 fatalities from the failure of the Banqiao and Shimantan dams in Zhumadian, China.[15] Outside of that singular disaster, dam failures have killed at least another 16,000 people since the inception of nuclear energy in the 1940s.[16]

Comparatively, the sum total impact of Chernobyl, including all predicted radiation exposure related deaths from 1986 onward, is, on the outside, just over 4000.[17] Fukushima resulted in one radiation related death, and 2,202 deaths as a result of the stresses of evacuation.[18] These two nuclear disasters total 6,203 deaths, compared to the conservative 186,000 deaths from hydroelectric over the same period.

However, the real comparison is between nuclear energy and fossil fuels. So, let’s even take the absolute worst case numbers for Chernobyl, a study which concluded that 985,000 pre-mature deaths worldwide occurred between 1986 and 2004 as a result of the radioactivity released in the disaster.[19] No, let’s do one better, let’s take all of the deaths from Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and every radiation related death from radiography and all the deaths tied to Chernobyl and Fukushima – a highly disputed number – but on the high end around 1.2 million people in total whose death was directly or indirectly related in some way, shape or form to radiation in the history of human harnessed nuclear energy.[20]

1.2 million men, women, and children dead over the 80 year history of nuclear energy is a tragedy. But it is salvation in the face of the staggering 8 million deaths annually from pollution from fossil fuels.[21] Quite literally, one in five deaths is related to fossil fuel pollution.[22]

We as a society have decided that the lifestyle we lead – our phones, cars, computers, mood lighting, surround sound speakers – are worth the sacrifice of those millions every year. It confounds reason why we would continue to use fossil fuels as an on-demand energy source so we can watch Netflix at night when we have a safer, and that is an understatement, alternative.

Radioactive Waste

First off, radioactivity exists in nature. It is inescapable. In fact, “nuclear reactors” are known to have existed naturally on earth, and it is probable that they still do.[23] Put simply, all that is required is a threshold density of radioactive isotopes to cause a self-sustaining reaction, releasing all of the fission products present in nuclear waste naturally.[24]

Regardless, where man-made radioactive waste is concerned, the more dangerous, longer lived radioactive waste produced by a reactor account for a small fraction of the whole, roughly 10% of the waste accounts for 99% of the radioactivity.[25] The key aspect here is that we do have the storage capacity and the expertise to safely isolate hotter waste while it decays to negligible levels.[26]

While this will happen over generations and generations, it is again a choice of the lesser evil. Particulate air pollution and fossil fuel spills are a comparable danger, and actively cause incomparable damage to human health and the environment. Fumes alone from oil and gas can, and do, kill.[27] If we can trust future generations to continue to damage our world with fossil fuels, we can trust them to safeguard a relative modicum of safely stored radioactive waste in underground storage sites.[28]

As an aside, growth in the nuclear industry would generate a corresponding growth in the radioactive waste storage and security industry – hypothetical jobs to support a shift away from fossil fuels.


While society is shifting toward more environmentally friendly, efficient technologies, the need for an on-demand energy source to support growing energy consumption is a necessary evil. The question remains, what will that source be? Nuclear energy can supply these needs in a more environmentally friendly, safe, and potentially geopolitically sensitive way than fossil fuels. While no energy source is without its risks, nuclear energy’s problems are manageable, and in fact, pose less threat than fossil fuels presently do. Fission is here now, and we should use it.


[1] https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/how-electricity-grid-works#:~:text=Our%20nation's%20electricity%20grid%20consists,of%20which%20is%20detailed%20below.&text=A%20variety%20of%20facilities%20generate,wind%20turbines%2C%20and%20solar%20panels.

[2] https://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/evtech.shtml

[3] Id.

[4] https://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/monthly/pdf/sec12.pdf

[5] Id.

[6] https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=830

[7] https://dialogochino.net/en/extractive-industries/38662-explainer-the-opportunities-and-challenges-of-the-lithium-industry/

[8] Id.

[9] https://www.state.gov/reports/2020-country-reports-on-human-rights-practices/bolivia/#:~:text=Significant%20human%20rights%20issues%20included,free%20expression%2C%20the%20press%2C%20and

[10] https://www.state.gov/reports/2020-country-reports-on-human-rights-practices/saudi-arabia/#:~:text=Significant%20human%20rights%20issues%20included,arbitrary%20arrest%20and%20detention%3B%20political

[11] http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/nuclear-fuel-cycle/mining-of-uranium/world-uranium-mining-production.aspx

[12] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iRHCv6iNPYE&ab_channel=TheRoyalInstitution

[13] Id.

[14] https://vce.org/The%20Wildlife%20Habitat%20of%20Vermont%201.15.pdf

[15] https://timeline.com/structural-failure-banqiao-china-7a402a25bb65

[16] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dam_failure

[17] https://ourworldindata.org/what-was-the-death-toll-from-chernobyl-and-fukushima

[18] Id.

[19] Alexey V. Yablokov; Vassily B. Nesterenko; Alexey V. Nesterenko (2009). Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment (Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences) (paperback ed.). Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 978-1-57331-757-3.

[20] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_nuclear_and_radiation_accidents_by_death_toll

[21] https://www.ecowatch.com/fossil-fuels-air-pollution-deaths-2650416201.html

[22] https://www.forbes.com/sites/carlieporterfield/2021/02/09/fossil-fuel-pollution-caused-nearly-1-in-5-global-deaths-in-2018-groundbreaking-study-suggests/?sh=7d705bd3665f

[23] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/ancient-nuclear-reactor/

[24] https://world-nuclear.org/information-library/nuclear-fuel-cycle/nuclear-wastes/radioactive-waste-management.aspx#:~:text=Radioactive%20waste%20is%20typically%20classified,on%20its%20level%20of%20radioactivity.

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27] https://www.denverpost.com/2015/05/17/toxic-vapors-suspected-in-deaths-of-three-colorado-oil-and-gas-workers/#:~:text=Besides%20explosions%20and%20asphyxiation%2C%20high,University%20of%20California%2C%20San%20Francisco.

[28] https://world-nuclear.org/information-library/nuclear-fuel-cycle/nuclear-wastes/radioactive-waste-management.aspx#:~:text=Radioactive%20waste%20is%20typically%20classified,on%20its%20level%20of%20radioactivity.