December 16, 2022 | OPINION | By A. J. Fabbri | Illustration by Felipe Singer
From Chernobyl to “Godzilla” to Three Mile Island, fear of nuclear accidents has haunted the global conscience for decades. These disasters helped foster a fear of nuclear power, augmented by popular and technological associations with nuclear weapons.
The environmental movement in the 1970s and 1980s opposed nuclear power, and its warnings of potentially catastrophic environmental damage seemed to have come true. High-profile reactor failures, especially the Chernobyl meltdown, led countries to phase out nuclear power due to fears of radioactive fallout.
Afterward, the antinuclear movement expanded the scope of the “Godzilla” franchise’s pop culture statement against nuclear weapons to also protest nuclear energy. The problem is that phasing out nuclear has impaired the global transition to green energy, worsening the climate crisis. Localized environmental damage and the minuscule risk of reactor failures are necessary prices to pay to prevent global climate calamity.
With a constant news barrage warning of the consequences that the world is already experiencing from global warming and how bad things could be, the international community must do everything it can to transition away from fossil fuels as fast as possible. Renewable energy is a vital component of this transition, but it cannot be the only component.
Technologies like wind and solar are renewable because they do not rely on consuming fuel like coal or gas. While nuclear energy is technically not renewable because it requires uranium or similar materials as fuel, it is low carbon because it does not emit greenhouse gases.
Nuclear energy’s share of the global energy mix fell from 18% in the 1990s to 10% in 2022, a significant step backward in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. While the world has begun to make meaningful progress in the transition to renewable energy in recent years, the share of green energy in total electricity generation only recently met and surpassed where it was in the 1990s. Back then, green energy peaked at about 38% of the world’s electricity mix before declining to 31% after the phasing out of nuclear energy and before the mass adoption of wind and solar.
It took until 2020 to match where our carbon-free electricity generation once was.
While most countries keep missing Paris Climate Agreement targets year after year, France is a shining example that reaching net zero is achievable within a reasonable time frame.
Implementing responsible management and modern safety technologies, the country’s use of nuclear power has allowed it to reach 94% low-carbon energy generation. According to the International Energy Agency, 23% of that electricity is from renewables and the remaining 71% comes from nuclear power. Another step in the right direction, the European Union Parliament voted in mid-2022 to legally classify nuclear as low carbon energy, opening it up to receiving many of the same economic incentives for adoption as wind and solar.
Pop culture has proven to be a significant barrier to nuclear energy adoption. For example, the plot of Sam Raimi’s critically acclaimed 2004 superhero film, “Spider-Man 2”, grapples with society’s nuclear power dilemma. For many, its potential to generate vast amounts of clean electricity was not worth radioactive waste and the risk of accidents.
To investigate how this dilemma persists at Colorado College, I asked some of my peers about nuclear power. According to Kelsey Pivnick ’25 and Kiana Marcx ’26, respectively, it’s “Bad [because] things go boom, people die,” and, “Bad… just bad.” On the other hand, Andrew Taplin ’25 thinks “it’s been given a bad rap because of things like ‘Chernobyl’ and ‘Three Mile Island’, but we should really give it another chance.”
“Spider-Man 2” does not take an explicit stance on nuclear power but, by associating it with the villain, implies that it is dangerous. In the movie, the well-meaning Dr. Otto Octavius’s quest to create “The power of the sun… in the palm of my hand” drives him to insanity. Suspecting that Doc Ock’s attempt at nuclear fusion will level New York City, Spider-Man defeats the scientist and promotes the message that nuclear fusion is a pipe dream. And, for 18 years, that remained true… until very recently.
By fusing atoms together to create energy the way stars do, nuclear fusion provides unmatched efficiency and negligible waste compared to currently operational nuclear fission reactors, which generate energy by splitting atoms apart. On Dec. 13, scientists in California conducted the first successful nuclear fusion “ignition,” a long-held technological dream previously demonstrated only in science fiction.
They were able to produce a fusion reaction that produced more energy than was used to start the reaction. Essentially, this means that they produced 150% of the energy that was put into the system. This breakthrough marks a significant milestone on the path toward net zero. With large-scale fusion adoption in the coming years, we may not be in as much trouble as we thought we were.