Given the alarming nuclear emergency that unfolded in Japan earlier this year, nations the world over have been reassessing their energy plans. The question is no longer "Is nuclear energy safe?" (the answer to that question was never a resounding "yes") but rather "Is nuclear energy worth the risks?"
In truth, all sources of power come with some risk or another, but those risks run a wide scale. The disaster at Fukushima illustrates the adversity inherent in the very building blocks of nuclear power.
As the blog for the Newberry Geothermal EGS Demonstration, this forum is of course focused on the merits and development of EGS technology. However, it is not bias that supports the safety of geothermal energy compared to nuclear energy. The differences between these two extend to the fundamental principles on which they are built.
The creation of nuclear energy relies on uranium, a naturally occurring but nonrenewable element. Most of the uranium used in the U.S. (92% in 2010) is imported from other nations; while this doesn't affect the safety of the technology itself, it does reinforce reliance on foreign sources.
While advocates for nuclear power emphasize that nuclear power plants emit no carbon dioxide, they create radioactive waste that must be contained and stored ad infinitum.
By contrast, geothermal works with the earth's natural processes rather than attempting to alter them. Geothermal energy relies on heat and water, which naturally coexist beneath the earth's crust and can be sourced 100% domestically.
Geothermal power plants do emit some carbon dioxide, but the levels are a fraction of those created by fossil fuel-based plants—and as the field develops, they're likely to drop further. Just as the Newberry Demonstration is expanding our ability to utilize the earth's heat for energy, others in the field are exploring ways to actually turn carbon dioxide into electricity using traditional geothermal techniques.
A Shift Toward Safety
Given the high-stakes risks of nuclear power, it's not surprising that many world leaders are turning away from it. In the past two months Germany, Switzerland and Italy have officially divorced themselves—and their futures—from nuclear power. Safety may be the catalyst, but in committing to this shift, these leaders are choosing energy sources that are also more reliable and more sustainable than nuclear power.