The Student Movement


Is Nuclear Power a Good Thing? A Reflection on Chernobyl Remembrance Day

Nate Miller

Photo by Tim Porter

On April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in what is now Southeast Russia exploded, and the reactor core burst into flames. The Soviet government of the time evacuated over 100,000 people from increasingly greater radii. Smoke from the fire, however, spread throughout Eastern Europe and eventually exposed nearly 8.4 million people to radioactive elements. The true death toll has never been clear, but it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of people may have died as a result of radiation poisoning. The human costs and far-reaching scale have cemented the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown as the greatest nuclear accident in human history. 

In 2016, the United Nations designated April 26 as International Chernobyl Remembrance Day, a day for us to reflect on the massive costs of the nuclear catastrophe. The recurring day also begs us to ask if nuclear power is safe—whether the benefits of nuclear power outweigh the risks that Chernobyl displayed.

Today, there are 436 nuclear reactors throughout the world, of which 93 are in the US. Nuclear power accounts for almost 18% of power produced in the US—45.5% of carbon-free power produced—and is thus the largest source of carbon-free energy in the country. While nuclear power is not technically renewable because it uses up radioactive fuel, it does not emit any greenhouse gasses, so it is, by some measures, a climate-friendly source of power. The vast majority of the United States’ nuclear reactors were built between 1970 and 1990, but it remains a significant power source, and one that has kept 470 million metric tons of carbon out of the atmosphere. It is also much more efficient than any other type of carbon-free energy: its capacity factor, that is, a ratio of actual energy output over the maximum energy output, is 92.5%. Wind’s capacity factor is almost a third of that, at 35.4%, and Solar’s is even worse, at 24.9%. Nuclear power is not only a significant part of the current US power grid—it is the most important, most efficient method of zero-carbon energy to date. Thus, nuclear power is the clear best way for us to advance to a carbon-free future.

Chernobyl was ugly. It cannot be cast in a positive light. However, the world has learned from the mistakes made in the accident so, hopefully, nothing like it will happen again. And nuclear energy is too good not to have—it is by far the best and most efficient way of producing zero-carbon energy. The world has had 18,500 cumulative reactor-years, and Chernobyl (along with Japan’s 2011 meltdown in Fukushima) was the only major nuclear meltdown. While there are other issues surrounding nuclear power, such as the safe storage of nuclear waste, we must not downplay nuclear energy’s potential capacity to usher in emission-free power grids across the world. 

We must continue to invest in and refine our capabilities to produce nuclear energy. It offers one of the most clear, achievable paths to a carbon-free future—and if we take it seriously, making sure that no meltdowns or other nuclear catastrophes happen again, it could be the key to a truly climate-friendly era.

Sources (in order of underlined sections)

The Student Movement is the official student newspaper of Andrews University. Opinions expressed in the Student Movement are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors, Andrews University or the Seventh-day Adventist church.