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Sustainable Idaho: Nuclear Potential

Nicolas Hippert

In our last episode, we introduced a new topic: nuclear energy, which many see as a viable energy source in the fight against climate change. As a short review, nuclear energy is created from the splitting of uranium atoms. First, uranium is mined, milled, and enriched so that it can go through the fission process of being split apart. After 5 or 6 years of producing energy, spent fuel is then stored in spent fuel pools and dry cask storage sites. This nuclear waste must be stored with great caution because there are a host of risks that come from exposure to radioactive material.

We learned that it is a complex process to make nuclear energy. Today, though, we will shift away from the production of nuclear energy to the potential for nuclear to aid in the green energy transition. We spoke again with Dr. Jess Gehin, from the Idaho National Laboratory, and Dr. Dunzik-Gougar, a nuclear engineering professor at Idaho State University about baseload power, replacing coal, and small modular reactors or SMRs.

We first asked Dr. Gehin how nuclear energy fits into the transition from fossil fuels. Dr. Gehin highlighted that nuclear offers a low carbon source of power that provides a much more stable stream of baseload power, or the minimum amount of power needed for the electrical grid at any given time. According to Dr. Dunzik-Gougar, nuclear power is better able to meet baseload power needs because of its ability to produce a constant stream of electricity, unlike other renewable sources. Dr. Dunsik-Gougar explained that renewables are very intermittent in their energy production. While there is hope that this can be addressed in the near future with grid-level battery capacity, said energy storage is in the early stages of implementation. Hydroelectric or nuclear energy is needed when wind and solar aren’t producing.

Besides being a great source of constant power, nuclear offers economic benefits when it comes to replacing coal and gas. Dr. Gehin highlighted that when old coal plants are shut down, various resources like power lines and workforce can be transferred to nuclear power production. When these resources are transferred, it saves money and can mitigate job losses in communities.

Still, nuclear energy garners great attention because of the dangers it's waste poses. We asked Dr. Dunzik-Gougar about these dangers. She explained that while waste may be dangerous, it is handled so safely that its effects are imperceptible to humans, even with instruments used to detect radiation.

Now, before the interviews, we had overheard some chatter surrounding SMRs, or Small Modular Reactors and asked Dr. Gehin to help us understand what they are and their potential. Turns out, SMRs are more versatile in adapting to changing energy demands and they can use less water than older models. Thus, SMRs seem to tackle some of the downsides to previous generations of reactors.

Proponents argue that in the shift away from fossil fuels, nuclear energy will be essential in meeting demands for baseload power. These plants can also use the locations of old coal plants which will be cheaper and help mitigate job losses. Lastly, while the spent fuel from reactors holds various risks, the way it is managed, aside from unforeseen situations, nearly eliminates all health risks. That said, the risks make many people reconsider wholly embracing nuclear energy. Next week we will be speaking with the Snake River Alliance about nuclear energy risks and drawbacks.

Join us for Sustainable Idaho, every Tuesday morning at 7:35 a.m.

Ailie Maclean was born and raised in Alaska but moved to Kimberly, Idaho right before high school. Ailie is an undergraduate Political Science and Global Studies major at ISU. She is going into her last year at ISU as Vice President of Idaho State’s student government, ASISU, and has served as an Honors Program Mentor, Communications Envoy, and ASISU Supreme Court Justice in past years. In her free time she enjoys reading, longboarding, hiking, watching anime, and swimming in unique places (Silfra in Iceland for example). Ailie plans on studying environmental, or some variation of international law, after taking a gap year to travel and work abroad.
Eizaak Jordan was born and raised in McCall, Idaho. He spent summers in Yellowpine, Idaho, near the Frank Church Wilderness Area. Eizaak's days were characterized by interacting with the natural world in both locations, curating his passion for Idaho’s ecosystems. He is currently an ISU Political Science student and President of ISU’s Sustainability Club. After graduation, he will be applying for a graduate program in environmental politics, which will hopefully open opportunities to gain full employment doing environmental advocacy. Eizaak spends his free time reading, cooking, and fly fishing.