Believing Misconceptions and Misinformation Surrounding Energy Solutions Could Be Rather Costly
Environmentally-friendly solutions are a dime a dozen. But if you look closely, you’ll find that some claims are misleading at best, and at worst, simply wrong. Conversely, there are solutions that sound harmful to the environment but are actually viable, clean energy alternatives. Common misconceptions for both categories can prove costly in more ways than one. And two rather popular misconceptions concern electric vehicles and nuclear energy.
It’s common to hear that electric vehicles are “zero-emissions vehicles,” meaning they emit no greenhouse gases while a user drives them. While technically true, this is far from the whole picture, because what also matters is the lifetime environmental impact of an electric vehicle.
Indeed, according to the European Environment Agency (EEA), electric vehicles have an ecosystem and human toxicity impact twice as high as typical combustion engine vehicles. See, electric vehicle manufacturing makes heavy use of critical minerals, most notably cobalt and lithium, that are concentrated in specific parts of the world.
The process of mining and manufacturing batteries from them leads to chemical runoff that ruins natural food supplies, strains water tables and, for cobalt, often employs child labor in cutthroat conditions. About 500,000 pounds of materials are moved and processed for each thousand pounds of battery produced, which is a quite carbon-intensive process. Manufacturing the lithium-ion battery alone emits roughly as many greenhouse gases as manufacturing an entire gas or diesel-powered vehicle.
And how environmentally-friendly electric vehicles are when the rubber meets the road ultimately depends on where their electric power is sourced. Indeed, the EEA report notes that vehicles charged on a coal-dominated grid emit more greenhouse gases than comparable gas and diesel-powered vehicles. And vehicles powered by the average European electric mix only have about 25-30% less greenhouse gas emissions than gas or diesel-powered vehicles do, so even on a greener electric mix, electric vehicles are far from claims of zero emissions.
These reality checks are not an indictment of electric vehicles — they simply serve to remind that even “green” technology can be harmful. Electric vehicles someday may have a large market that can provide significant environmental benefits under the right circumstances. Those circumstances, though, are better manufacturing processes and a less-carbon-intense electric supply. And one of the largest sources of reliable, emissions-free electricity is nuclear power.
Nuclear power is a promising energy source, but it carries a bad reputation. Over half of Americans oppose nuclear energy, and even more oppose it globally. After all, why risk generating electricity from the same power as our most destructive weapons?
As it turns out, though, that fear is exaggerated. See, to make a nuclear weapon, uranium is usually enriched 90%, whereas nuclear power plants are only enriched 3-5% to generate electricity. So it’s physically impossible for a commercial nuclear power plant to explode like a weapon.
Too, nuclear waste is much more benign than popularly imagined. Around 80,000 tons of used nuclear fuel has been shipped worldwide since 1970 for storage and reprocessing, with no harmful release of radioactive material. Spent fuel is submerged in cooling tanks in secure facilities and then stored in thick, airtight, steel and concrete casks safe enough to touch. So little waste is produced that all the nuclear waste since 1960 could fit 10 yards deep onto a football field.
And considering the health effects and accidents from all major energy sources, nuclear power is by far the safest form of energy. Comparing deaths per unit of energy produced, nuclear power is 330 times safer than coal, 250 times safer than oil and 38 times safer than natural gas. And even with the accident in Chernobyl in 1986 — the worst nuclear power disaster in history — it bears noting that no nuclear reactor outside of the Soviet Union was designed as poorly, making the meltdown circumstances irreplicable in most of the world.
And it may seem hard to believe, but the deaths Chernobyl will have caused from radiation-induced cancer over several decades is expected to amount to fewer deaths worldwide than those caused by coal power plant pollution each month.
Subject to high safety standards and tight international controls, nuclear power has become the safest, most scalable clean energy source in the world. Indeed, by averting air pollution, NASA estimates that nuclear energy has saved roughly two million lives since 1970.
We must look at the data and information available to see which energy solutions work and which ought to be improved upon. Because popular misconceptions can stifle useful innovation and hide the shortcomings of some purportedly green technology. And that’s a costly way to not solve problems.
Jakob Puckett is a policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute and a Young Voices contributor.