To call nuclear power controversial would be a gross understatement. On the one hand, various environmental groups, policymakers and press members have heralded atomic power as the saving grace for our ravaged world. For instance, an article in the Wall Street Journal went so far as to call nuclear energy the "best climate change solution by far", pointing to its low emissions and large-scale application. However, there are an equal number of environmental groups, policymakers and press members that view nuclear energy as a dangerous, unsustainable pipe dream, saddled with numerous problems. So who's right?
In a nutshell...it's complicated.
3 Reasons Nuclear Power Is the Answer
1) It reduces CO2 Emissions
In 2018, Climate Watch reported that 76% of all greenhouse gas emissions were released through energy production, mainly through the burning of fossil fuels. According to a report from 2019, fossil fuels accounted for 84% of the primary energy consumption in the world and 64% of our electricity. If we are to cut emissions to net zero, then we require a source of energy that does not result in nearly as many carbon emissions.
This is where nuclear power enters the fray. As it produces electricity via nuclear fission rather than chemical burning, it generates electricity without also producing any carbon. This is not to say, however, that they are a totally clean source of energy. Emissions still arise from the maintenance and running of nuclear power plants, as well as the mining, transporting and processing of uranium. All of this still only adds up to 4 or 5% as much as a natural fire gas plant, which, in turn, produces about half as much as coal.
2) Better storage and more reliable than renewables
In the last 2o years, the world's electricity usage increased 73% in absolute terms. While renewables are growing at record speeds, the amount of fossil fuel we're burning continues to outpace them. Part of the reason for this is the lack of storage capacity for energy produced by solar, wind and hydro. To put it plainly, renewables are, unfortunately, inherently intermittent sources. The sun is not always shining, nor the wind blowing, nor the water running as it should. According to a paper by the Yale School of Environment, US hydroelectric systems delivered power 38.2% of the time (138 days a year), wind turbines 34.5% of the time (127 days per year) and solar arrays only 25.1% of the time (92 days per year).
By contrast, nuclear energy is far more reliable. The same paper reports that in the US, nuclear power plants had an average capacity factor of 92.3%, meaning they operated at full power for 336 days a year. Moreover, nuclear power accounts for around 70% of France's energy supply, and 30% of Sweeden's energy supply, while renewables only accounted for 11% in France and 23% in Sweeden. While hydroelectricity does also account for a huge amount of Sweeden's power (45%), this is only possible due to Sweeden's large water border. Not every country can count on similar geographical advantages, while nuclear power plants can be set up anywhere, are far more reliable and have proven to work at the scale required for our modern energy needs. Additionally, it would take the equivalent of 2,000 wind turbines to equal the annual energy production of a single nuclear reactor, further proving nuclear efficiency over renewables.
3) More nuclear power plants means fewer deaths
Considering the overabundance of tv, film and novel depictions of nuclear disasters, this may prove a controversial point. While it is true that catastrophic nuclear accidents have occurred in the past and have resulted in huge losses of life, this is far from the rule. It is akin to the disparity between deaths caused by cars, and the deaths caused by aeroplane crashes; we are desensitised to car crashes, yet the far, far less common, but more deadly aeroplane incidents never fail to make worldwide headlines. This distracts from the fact that nuclear energy is, by far, safer than fossil fuels, and routinely saves lives.
According to a 2013 study by NASA, 1.8 million deaths have been prevented by nuclear power plants between 1976 and 2009. By preventing the release of 64 gigatonnes of harmful, toxic fumes that would have resulted from burning fossil fuels, it stands to reason that countless cases of bronchitis, asthma and other breathing-related issues have been prevented. Less harmful matter in the air we breathe is nothing but a benefit not only for the environment but humanity as a whole.
3 Reasons Nuclear Power Is Not the Answer
1) It does not reduce CO2 emissions enough and is not realistic
As stated earlier, if we are to put a halt to climate change, then we must bring CO2 emissions down to 0% by 2050. Although nuclear power plants would undoubtedly aid in this, the fact of the matter is on their own, nuclear power plants do not do nearly enough to justify their enormous cost; a cost that will be expanded upon later.
According to scenarios from the World Nuclear Association and the OCED Nuclear Energy Agency, doubling the capacity of nuclear power worldwide in 2050 would only decrease greenhouse gas emissions by around 4%. This meagre statistic is also assuming that year on year, 37 new nuclear power plants would be added to the energy grid by 2050. In practice, this is simply not possible. Not only is the average construction time of 10 years well above the industry standard of 8.5 years, the last decade only showed 10 new connections per year, so ramping this up to a total of 999 connections for 2050 is logistically impossible. Arguably, in the time that it would take to reach this target, would we not be better off funnelling these efforts into the construction of more realistic and easier-to-build wind and solar farms?
Although nuclear energy undoubtedly produces fewer emissions than its fossil fuel counterparts, taken on its own, it would not be enough and therefore is not the definite answer to halting climate change.
2) They are far too expensive and intricate to maintain long-term
Compared to their renewable counterparts, nuclear plants are incredibly costly and labour-intensive to build and maintain. True enough, nuclear plants may provide more energy, but they are also staggeringly more expensive and complex construction endeavours that simply cannot be maintained for the periods that we require.
According to Nuclear Syanpase Energy, companies that are planning new nuclear units are currently indicating that the total costs will be in the range of between $6 and $9 billion for each 1,100 MW plant. Moreover, in the past decade, the World Nuclear Industry Status Report estimates costs; which compare the total lifetime cost of building and running a plant to lifetime output; for utility-scale solar has dropped by 88% and wind by 69%. According to the same report, these costs have increased by 23% for nuclear. Moreover, due to a lack of investment around the world, many nuclear reactors are running on outdated technology that is very costly to replace, only adding to to the running bill of nuclear energy.
3) They are undeniably dangerous
As much as proponents of nuclear energy may argue its safety benefits, it is inarguable that it comes with immense risk.
As is well-known, nuclear waste is a huge environmental concern. The spent reactor fuel and uranium mill tailings can remain radioactive and dangerous to human health for thousands of years. The problem, then, is where to put this nuclear waste. The choices are grim; either dump it or try to extract plutonium from used nuclear fuel to use as new fuel. The latter, however, is only in principle a possibility. We simply do not have the technology to extract the reusable fuel on the scale we require, and it is only economical when the uranium supply is low and prices are high. Therefore, most spent nuclear fuel is recycled to create nuclear weapons, only furthering the insecurity and environmental health of the planet.
Despite its many drawbacks, nuclear power remains one of the best options for combating climate change. Considering the definite, verifiable risks and dangers of current fossil fuel technology, anything that has the potential to contribute towards a solution is simply an acceptable risk to take, and should be pursued. However, it is inarguable that nuclear power has its drawbacks. Namely, cost vs effectiveness and their potential for danger. To balance this, we should not view nuclear or renewables as a binary choice, but both as useful tools towards a cleaner, better world.
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