Fossil Fuel vs. Nuclear Energy

Geoffrey Lewis
March 3, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: Wet storage/dry casket, as of 31 Dec 11, metric tons of uranium (MTU). (Source: G. Lewis, after Werner. [6])

Energy is essential to supporting human life on planet earth. Human beings have populated the entire planet and rely on the burning of coal to perform daily activities such as turning on lights, heating showers, and using a simple microwave. Our heavy reliance on energy has put our planet at risk due to high emissions of carbon dioxide that are released through the burning of fossil fuels. As humans have become more aware of the consequences of burning fossil fuels for energy, there has been a push for a more sustainable energy source. Nuclear energy seems to be the answer. But is using nuclear energy for electricity really more sustainable than burning fossil fuels? Are carbon dioxide emissions worse than nuclear waste? In this essay we will compare the two and attempt to answer this question.

Consequences of Increased Carbon Dioxide

As of 2007, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 379 ppm and has continued to rise since. Before the industrial revolution, the concentration of carbon dioxide was around 280 ppm. [1] This increased concentration of a greenhouse gas such as carbon dioxide holds an immediate threat to human beings. More carbon dioxide means more heat is trapped around our planet. Increased heat holds many consequences. Not only is it the reason for a rising sea level, the acidity of the ocean has also increased with the higher concentration of carbon dioxide within the atmosphere. More carbon dioxide gets absorbed into the ocean which forms more carbonic acid which then decreases the pH of the ocean. The higher acidity hurts the life of many aquatic organisms including coral reef. Increasing global temperatures play a huge roll in terrestrial ecology. An example of this is the Hawaiian Honeycreeper. This endangered bird species avoids avian malaria by living at elevation above 4,500 feet, where the temperature does not drop below 17 degrees celsius. [2] As global temperatures rise, the habitat for these once prosperous native Hawaiian birds will continue to shrink and they will eventually go extinct. All in all, climate change is driven by the emitting of carbon dioxide which is the product of burning fossil fuels. Climate change is a threat to the ecology of both terrestrial and oceanic species.

Dangers of Nuclear Waste

In 2006 it was estimated that around 8910 tons of heavy metal nuclear waste was generated around the world. [3] Nuclear waste is radioactive and dangerous to any organisms in proximity to it. However, great technological strides have been made in order to control and trap the nuclear waste in order to avoid health hazards to both human beings and the environment. High level radioactive waste is mainly uranium fuel that is both hot and highly radioactive. [4] In the U.S, the nuclear waste is stored in spent fuel pools which are giant barrels up to 40 feet deep. [4] These pools are made with reinforced concrete that is several feet thick and with reinforced steel liners. [4] However, holding on to nuclear was is risky in the fact that any leakage will be deadly to many living organisms. As you can see from the image on the right, the United States carries a very large amount of nuclear waste. There have been many horror stories of leaked nuclear waste and nuclear waste holding sites are far from perfect. In New Mexico in 2014, a mysterious leak exposed 17 employees at a nuclear power plant to high levels of radiation. [5] These nuclear waste holding sites are meant to be temporary, however there are still no facilities for permanent high level radioactive waste. [4]


In today's modern society, human beings need fuel. Fuel comes in many shapes and forms but in the past century, nearly all of it is from fossil fuels. These fossil fuels emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and result in an increasing global climate. More recently, nuclear energy has come into the picture. Burning of nuclear energy releases zero carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. However, the byproduct is extremely dangerous and must be contained. As of right now, both have their pros and cons. Safe, permanent, disposal of high level nuclear waste must be achieved in order to push our world away from fossil fuel reliance. Until then, human beings will continue to burn fossil fuels and damage the world we live in. As of now, both pose a high risk to the environment, but nuclear energy has a lot more room for improvement.

© Geoffrey Lewis. 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] Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis - Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[2] E. A. VanderWerf, "Hawaiian Bird Conservation Action Plan," Pacific Rim Conservation, October 2012.

[3] "Nuclear Waste," Social and Spatial Inequalities Group, 2006.

[4] "Radioactive Waste," U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, April 2015.

[5] D. Frosch, "A Livelihood in Nuclear Waste, Under Threat," New York Times, 20 Mar 14.

[6] J. D. Werner, "U.S. Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage," Congressional Research Service, R42513, May 2012.