To say that nuclear energy has an image problem would be putting it nicely. Despite owning one of the safest track records of all sources of energy, nuclear power has failed to persuade public opinion with the ease of a fictional storyline from Hollywood. The dangerous misconceptions not only hinder the clean and powerful fuel's advancement but also run the risk of increasing the world's dependence on fossil fuels as governments rethink their nuclear programs.
Although next month marks two years since the Fukushima nuclear crisis, many wounds have yet to heal. Why can't the world have an intellectual discussion on the future of nuclear energy without fearing radioactive zombies? Therefore, I have joined forces with Argonne National Laboratory in an effort to demystify the controversial energy source. Here are some of the most amazing facts and statistics that show we have nothing to fear, but much to gain.
1. One kilogram of uranium has the same energy content as 16,700 kilograms of the highest-grade coal or 13,200 cubic meters of natural gas.
2. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, nuclear power plants avoided 613 million metric tons of CO2 emissions in 2011. That is the same total produced by 118 million cars, which is nearly the same number of cars in the United States.
3. Bill Gates believes that the United States holds enough spent nuclear fuel -- currently defined as waste -- to power the country for more than 100 years. He has backed TerraPower, which is developing the technology to make it happen.
4. At last count in 2002, the United States had 46,268 metric tons of spent fuel stored within its borders.
5. TerraPower's traveling wave reactor, or TWR, can run for 40 years before it needs to be refueled. The average traditional nuclear facility needs to be refueled every 18 months.
6. Last one for TerraPower: The company estimates that its TWR can save more than $2 billion in fuel costs over the life of a plant when compared with a traditional facility.
7. Uranium is 40 times as abundant as silver.
8. Despite its apparent abundance, it takes 100 metric tons of uranium ore to produce 1 metric ton of natural uranium for enrichment.
9. Exelon (NYSE:EXC) generates 19,000 MW of nuclear energy each year, which represents 54% of its total annual capacity. Natural gas makes up just 28%.
10. To put that number in perspective, the entire country of India is targeting only 14,600 MW of nuclear energy by 2020.
11. At 30,350 MW, the total nuclear capacity of American energy providers Exelon and Duke Energy (NYSE:DUK) is greater than the total output of every country except France, which owns more than 63,000 MW.
12. France generates 78% of its electricity from nuclear energy. The United States, which produces more than 101,409 MW of nuclear energy each year from just 104 reactors, generates only 19% of its total electricity from nuclear power.
13. Technological upgrades alone have added 3,500 MW of nuclear capacity to the domestic grid since 2000.
14. A total of 14 countries generate at least one-fifth of their total electricity from nuclear energy.
15. Roughly 437 nuclear reactors scattered around the globe generated 392,000 MW of electricity in 2012, or 12.3% of the world's total consumption.
16. Cameco (NYSE:CCJ), the world's leading uranium mining company, estimates that total annual world nuclear capacity will reach 510,000 MW by 2022. Of that total, 64,000 MW are under construction today.
17. How much uranium does Cameco produce? In 2012 the company produced 23.3 million pounds of triuranium octoxide. Its mines make up 16% of world production and hold 435 million pounds of proven and probable reserves.
18. It can take the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC, 30 to 60 months to review an application for a new reactor in the United States. There are currently applications pending for 28 new reactors.
19. One year ago this week, the NRC approved the construction of two new reactors by Southern (NYSE:SO) -- the first in more than 30 years. The last new construction permit was granted in 1978 to Progress Energy, now part of Duke Energy.
20. The average age of a nuclear reactor in the United States is 32 years. Accounting for initial licenses and extension licenses, a nuclear reactor can operate for up to 60 years.
21. Southern's two new reactors will produce 2,200 MW of electricity and cost a total of $14 billion.
22. The two new reactors will add capacity to Plant Vogtle, which has been certified as a conservation center by The Wildlife Habitat Council since 1993.
23. Uranium prices have fallen 70% since reaching an all-time high in 2007.
24. Even with that precipitous drop, uranium has had a difficult time keeping up with natural gas. In 2008, the average uranium-to-natural gas price ratio was just 0.21, but it more than doubled to 0.51 in 2012. Looks like coal isn't the only energy source hurt by cheap natural gas.
25. Entrepreneur Seth Goldin recently compiled historical World Health Organization, or WHO, data to determine the global death rates for various energy sources. For every terawatt hour of electricity generation, there were 161 coal-related deaths, four natural gas-related deaths, 0.15 wind-related deaths, and 0.04 nuclear-related deaths.
26. A 2011 study (link opens PDF) conducted by the WHO determined that environmental noise causes enough stress each year to shorten European lifetimes 3.376 million years. In other words, as Europeans worry about doomsday nuclear scenarios, they lose, on average, three days of life each year from the noise of their car engines.
27. In 15,000 cumulative reactor years of global operation, only three major accidents have occurred (Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima).
28. Radiation exposure from abandoned medical equipment, which kills two to four people each year, is more deadly than living or working at a nuclear plant.
29. The newest nuclear reactors are designed to such strict safety controls that a degraded core or meltdown will occur at a 1-in-10 million-year frequency. As I stated, nuclear plants active today will operate for a maximum of 60 years.
30. The International Atomic Energy Agency has never confirmed the creation of a single radioactive zombie.
The WHO study on environmental noise (No. 26) demonstrates that the visibility of a threat, factual or not, can override the facts behind the threat. It's much easier to fear nuclear energy after watching a fictional movie than to fear a silent killer such as noise or air pollution, which kill exponentially more people each year than nuclear power ever has. The potential for disaster exists with any large-scale energy project, but don't forget that each is constructed to strict safety guidelines. Nevertheless, while no country should become overly dependent on any one energy source, it's clear that nuclear power is a very important part of the global energy picture.