Nuclear vs. Fossil

Kelly Myers
March 12, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2016


Fig. 1: Bald Cypress and Spanish Moss swamp grove. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

With its origins arguably dating from Hiroshima Nagaski or the first Russian demonstration of nuclear sophistication in 1949, the Nucleonic Age has caused major social, political, religious, and beginning with the Industrial Revolution, scientific upheavals. [1] Categorized today as a systemic revolution, this historic phenomenon of dissecting an atoms nucleus has involved major capital investment, financial analysis, and the power of mens minds to unravel its very basic nature. [1] With much to learn, the nature of nuclear power has continually grown into a very probable substantial source of energy, one that trumps the use of fossil fuels. [1]

Fossil Fuel

Close to ninety percent of the worlds current economy is fueled yearly by the burning, digging, and exploitation of "primeval swamp goo", known as fossil fuels. Through extraordinary skill, the most powerful industries in the world have been able to turn oil, gas, and coal into accessible and affordable means of fuel and electricity generating large amounts of wealth and a thriving modern society. [2]Seen in Fig. 1, swamps in the United States have been one of the primary sources of the fossil fuel coal. Filled or drained as an accepted practice for many years until environmental preservation acts came into effect in the early 2000's. Yet these marvels of energy are beginning to raise costs and the risk of harvesting these natural fuels is actually under-cutting the dynasty of prosperity and security they enabled. [2] With the United States spending over two billion dollars in buying oil while losing another four billion in the process to the macroeconomic costs of oil dependency, the results are not pretty. [2] Weaning the United States off these fossil fuels would require two big shifts: in oil and electricity. [2] Though each a distinctly different source, the current focus on energy shifts has revolved around the concept of nuclear power and developing it to be a feasible source of replacement. [2]

Nuclear Power

Nuclear power can play a large role in carbon free production of electrical energy. It is excellent for providing reliable base-loaded electricity, has a high capacity, and requires very little material for construction and fuel for operation. [3] It is these key characteristics that make it an attractive economic opportunity as well. [3] If successfully developed, nuclear reactors may have an important and sustainable part in future energy production. [3] Working fusion reactor may even qualify to be more efficient and environmentally friendly than any other alternative. However, these reactors require a large amount of development and research, with a winding roadmap just beginning. [3] When garnering nuclear energy with a nuclear fission mindset a couple things need to be considered: safety, nuclear waste, availability, life cycle and economic competitiveness. While hypothetically leading as the best fuel source in each category the implementation of nuclear energy from fission is still an emerging theory garnering new results and indicators of further development. [3]

Fossil Fuel vs. Nuclear

Large acceleration in nuclear power plant installation is possible by the compelling economics described in the Nucleonic Imperative. In comparing even the first 1962 model prototype nuclear plant costs to KWH comparisons with the most modern fossil fueled generation stations still allows the nuclear plant to hold up its end competitively if not projectable better. [2] Even modest projections of the benefits from only adding average improvements in nuclear plant technology show nuclear fueled power economics becoming far superior and continually increasing. Therefore, if as noted, installing nuclear plants in the heart of cities across the country becomes politically and economically viable, the result would garner a far superior final cost landing far below the economic price-line of any fossil-fuel generated power source. [2]


There is the inevitable fact that a nuclear reactor core, or nuclear power source, upon arrival in the economy will garner huge demand. Nuclear powers potential impaction on the economy as a whole falls in four categories in the electric utility industry alone: Research and Development (including testing), inventorying, production facilities, and earnings potential. [2] Each of these categories opens up a large subject that deems more suitable for individual treatment, perhaps in subsequent articles. While nuclear energy has a promising future as the next renewable energy source, the time and effort needed to implement a successful and operational foundation for nuclear power still remains on the drawing table. For now, theoretically nuclear energy through fission far exceeds the potential of the slowly dying fossil fuels but the work needed to build these fission structures is still in the making.

© Kelly Myers. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] J. J. Quinn, "The Nucleonic Imperative and Investment Dollar," Financial Analysts Journal 20, 83 (1964).

[2] A. B. Lovins, "A Farewell to Fossil Fuels: Answering the Energy Challenge," Foreign Affairs. 91, No. 2, 134 (March/April 2012).

[2] K. Grandin, P. Jagers, and S. Kullander, "Nuclear Energy," Ambio 39, Suppl. 1, 26 (2010).