Talk Nerdy to Me – Nuclear Energy debate


May 7, 2018

At 2:46 PM on Friday, March 11, 2011, the Tōhoku earthquake struck off the east coast of Japan with devastating effects that would alter the course of Japanese history and energy policy.

cjgr04m0i00h541i5bszm8zd7 fukushima hydrogen explosions
Efforts to extinguish fires from hydrogen explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

cjgiddobj0005ovi5cweo19fw moment magnitude scale
The Moment Magnitude Scale Photo:

Measuring an immense 9.0 Mw on the moment magnitude scale, the approximate energy release was greater than that of the famous volcanic eruptions of Krakatoa and Mount St. Helens combined.  The earthquake resulted in a tsunami that caused the death of more than 15,000 people, the evacuation of 470,000, and extensive structural damage – most notably, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

There are six reactors at the Daiichi station. When the earthquake hit, three of these reactors that were generating electricity shut down immediately as power supplies were lost.  Backup diesel generators began producing electricity, but the tsunami eventually reached the station, knocking out the backup generators.  The loss of electricity prevented the reactors from being cooled.  The reactor cores then began to overheat and react with steam, which ultimately lead to hydrogen explosions and the release of radioactive material into the atmosphere and nearby coastal waters.  This resulted in extremely high radiation levels near the plant, leaving areas of land uninhabitable and resulting in the evacuation of more than 100,000 residents.  Although the event at Daiichi did not cause any immediate casualties, it was classified as a Level 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale, the highest rating and only such classification since the 1986 event in Chernobyl, Ukraine.

cjgmdcctq00cj8vi5fdcfo2aj fukushima tsunami
The tsunami from the Tōkoku Earthquake overtops the seawall at the Fukushima Daiichi station Photo:,29307,2058823_2276624,00.html

Nuclear energy has always garnered suspicion and criticism, and the Fukushima incident certainly added to public mistrust of nuclear technologies around the world.  However, experts in the industry are assured that nuclear power generation is safe.  It is a controversial debate that has led to continued research and development on one hand and full divestment on the other.  For example, since the disaster in Fukushima, their local government has pledged to produce electricity from 100% renewable sources by 2040 – on the other hand, Japan’s federal government remains pro-nuclear.  For further comparison, in April 2018, the New Jersey state government passed a bill that will provide a $300 million annual subsidy to the states’ existing nuclear power plants.  

To understand both sides of the issue, let’s first take a look at how nuclear power generation works.

The Fundamentals

By definition, nuclear power generation is the conversion of energy available in nuclear bonds, that is the energy that holds the fundamental parts of an atom together.  There are two methods that can produce nuclear energy:  fission and fusion.  

Fission is the splitting of a heavy atom.  Uranium is the heaviest naturally occurring element on the planet, and a common variation of it, U-235, is used for nuclear fission reactions.  This type of reaction is the most common, as U-235 is ideal for processes within the power plant, and exists as a relatively common resource. 

Fusion is the opposite.  Fusion occurs when lightweight atoms are forced to collide.  Variations of the element Hydrogen (named Deuterium and Tritium), are used for this reaction.  This is a technology of the future, as further research is needed to develop fusion into a reliable, large-scale form of energy generation. Deuterium is the most abundant nuclear fuel, and the reaction’s byproduct (Helium) is not radioactive – thus, this technology boasts very alluring prospects.

cjgqvzbph0030jyi531j02dh7 fission
cjgqvzbbh002zjyi521zsw993 fusion

Nuclear bonds are very strong, so the energy delivered per unit mass of fuel from both fission and fusion reactions is very large relative to other fuels.  For example, U-235 produces 2 million times the amount of energy as an equivalent mass of coal.

     Pros & Cons

  • no CO2 emissions
  • high energy yield per unit mass of fuel
  • low electricity costs
  • the potential of fusion technology
  • financial & health risks of power plant accidents
  • long term disposal of nuclear waste
  • potential for the development of nuclear weapons
  • high capital/initial costs

The reputation of nuclear energy has suffered greatly from major accidents like in Fukushima, and also from its association with nuclear weapons. However, when weighing the pros and cons of nuclear technology, it is important to consider the current state of our global energy sector and changing climate.  Nuclear energy is the largest nonfossil source of electricity in the world, and therefore contributes very much to the reduction of CO2 emissions – this is an important consideration for our urgent need to combat climate change.  In addition, while people fear the health effects of nuclear incidents, the daily effects of fossil fuel usage on human health are far more prevalent.  In many developing countries, the lack of adequate regulations for air pollution is responsible for hundreds of thousands of premature deaths per year.  These effects can even be seen in developed countries like the United States, where some antiquated power plants still exist. Furthermore, the efficiency of nuclear power generation results in a low cost of electricity relative to other fuel sources, and future development of fusion technologies may lead to nuclear power generation that does not produce high-level radioactive waste.

On the other hand, opening a nuclear power plant involves very high initial costs, and while technology and management have improved over the years, accidents can happen.  When they do, it can result in the loss of life, health, and massive financial investments.  In addition, current nuclear power generation produces radioactive byproducts that need to be disposed of. The technologies necessary for handling radioactive waste are unique to nuclear energy, and require major investment of money and time; high-level nuclear waste will remain radioactive for thousands of years.  Lastly, if a country possesses the means to operate a nuclear power plant, it may also be capable of developing nuclear weapons.  In fact, nuclear energy generation and weapons development can exist in the same facility.  In light of recent events and issues surrounding nuclear weapons, the harmful real-world potential of this technology can be easily imagined.

When considering the pros and cons of nuclear energy, it is difficult to decide which side of the argument is stronger. Regardless of which way you lean, it is important to consider the implications of nuclear energy on a case to case basis. For Fukushima, it has been decided that the potential of geologic events to disrupt nuclear power generation to the point of public and environmental harm is too great to continue to rely on nuclear energy.  

To learn more about nuclear energy, the decommissioning of nuclear power plants, and Fukushima’s push for 100% renewable energies by 2040, join TGP students in Japan as we pursue the global ideals of sustainable development.

cjgqwy32h000647i5uwj75n9v daiichi
GREEN students in lecture at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant

Read Another Article

Honoring Kate Slattery & Highlighting the Shine On Scholarship for Women’s History Month

In honor of Women’s History Month, The GREEN Program is happy to highlight Kate Slattery – a mechanical engineer and photovoltaic designer for SolarCity who challenged herself and others to work toward a global mission of renewable energy and sustainability. We are honored to work with Kate’s family and GivePower to share Kate’s story and provide the Shine On Scholarship to TGP students in memory of Kate. 

read more

How an Online Sustainability Program Helped Jaedyn Medrano Become an Intersectional Sustainability Advocate

This blog features the virtual Nepal Ethics of Sustainable Development Alum, Jaedyn Medrano who says, “this program taught me how to think about a project holistically, and it has guided me along the path to being a better cultured and inclusive young professional.” She is set to graduate with a double major in Renewable Natural Resources & Ecological Restorations in December of 2022.

read more

Defending Reproductive Rights in the Battle for Climate Justice

Reproductive Justice is Climate Justice. The GREEN Program stands to defend the reproductive rights of all women and people who give birth to access safe reproductive health care. We must do more to educate others and understand the interconnection between Reproductive Justice and the Climate Crisis. It’s important to draw the connections between climate change, pollution, and reproductive rights.

read more

An International Graduate Student Embraces Nepali Culture by Studying Abroad through Shine On Scholarship

On one hand, I believe that every student should be given a chance to study abroad at least once in their life, because it teaches us things that textbooks cannot: adaptability, resilience, curiosity, empathy, just to name a few. Whether good or bad, bursting our bubble and learning about our world will inspire us and open our minds. On the other hand, the people we interact with benefit from the diversity, because all of us bring unique perspectives to the table. Perhaps we share an idea that no one has thought of but could be key to solving a problem; we fuel the aspirations of someone who is facing similar difficulties; or help take down stereotypes.  

read more

Remembering Juneteenth and the Fight for Environmental Justice

n June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, TX, and announced the end of the Civil War and the end of slavery. It is on this day every year since that we celebrate “Juneteenth” as the end of slavery in the United States. It is a day that we celebrate ancestors and leaders who fought to be liberated. We celebrate their power, resiliency, and tenacity. 

read more

LGBTQ+ Leaders and Organizations in Sustainability to Know About this Pride Month

The GREEN Program loves to celebrate love, and there is no better way to do that this month than by recognizing a few LGBTQ+ leaders and organizations that are making a difference not just in their own communities but for our planet altogether. Read below to learn more about some people and spaces that are working together to promote a better world that focuses on inclusion and equality.

read more

Meet 8 AAPI Leaders in Sustainability: Across the Globe and At Home

The month of May is known to many as the end of classes and the start of Summer, but May is also known as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Our team at TGP wanted to take a moment to recognize the contributions and influence of AAPI Americans throughout history, culture, and achievements both on a global scale, and from those who are a bit close to home. We also encourage you to learn more about AAPI Heritage Month and get involved through additional resources.

read more

From a Start Up to a Sustainability Study Abroad Program: How Patrick Applied his Passion for Renewable Energy in Iceland

When Fall 2021 rolled around and I saw the TGP scholarship opportunity, I thought I’d apply not expecting much. When I found out that I actually got it, I was like “I guess I’m actually doing this!”. I was a little nervous and anxious but also so excited for the opportunity! I was also grateful that the enrollment process was very smooth for me with no significant challenges along the way.

read more

Boston University Student Gains a Unique Perspective for Renewable Energy & Sustainability by Studying Abroad in Iceland

Global experiences have definitely shaped me into the person I am today through increased cultural awareness and sensitivity. Getting to really know a great group of diverse individuals from all over the world has not only shaped my perspective on current world issues, but has also allowed me to take a glance at certain topics from another angle and point of view.

read more

A Construction Science Major Turns Lessons into Opportunity after a Sustainability Study Abroad Program 

AJ Ewing spent his past Winter Break a little bit differently than most students, by studying abroad on our GREEN Nepal program. As a Construction Science major, AJ notes that he was nervous coming into the study abroad program having no prior experience in sustainability or electrical/solar grids, but he was excited and eager to learn. As soon as he arrived, all his nerves were gone as he was welcomed by our team and ready to dive in. Now, he can honestly say that when he thinks of The GREEN Program, he thinks of “family away from home.”

read more

How a Geologist Made His Sustainability Dream in Iceland a Reality through a Study Abroad Scholarship

As someone who is in a field with a limited representation of ethnic minorities, TGP created a neutral ground where there was a range of diversity on different levels. My GREEN Program experience in Iceland wasn’t just about the adventures and cultural immersion, but about the education too. I thoroughly enjoyed the lectures because I saw how passionate the different lecturers were about their work and research which is truly inspiring. As a geologist, learning more about the wonder that is Iceland in Iceland was definitely a dream come true.

read more

Get to Know GREENie: Maryam Aida Tidjani

Maryam Aida Tidjani got to experience a brand new kind of GREEN Program during the hard times the world was facing, a 100% Virtual and Online experience. Initially planning on traveling to Peru in 2021, the global pandemic continued to shift things around and we had to pivot all travel programs to Online experiences.

read more

Subscribe to The GREEN Program newsletter & updates

Skip to content