Will nuclear energy save us from climate change?

Written by Hanna Kirchberger

Posted on 05/03/22

Photo by Lukáš Lehotský on Unsplash

Nuclear energy is energy that is generated by nuclear fission, meaning the splitting of an atom nucleus. Due to struggles like the safe disposal of nuclear waste, it has always been a debated topic with many opponents but after the tragic accidents of Fukushima and Chernobyl nuclear energy was pretty much demonized. This was not only due to the fatal direct consequences of a nuclear meltdown and the effects of the radiation of nuclear waste (something I will touch upon later) but also resulted from the realization that such disasters cannot be contained within one country. The consequences of nuclear accidents are transboundary and affect other countries as well. The topic of nuclear energy therefore concerns each and everyone of us, regardless of whether our country implements nuclear energy or not. In light of the worsening climate crisis, however, the debate flared up again. Especially now that the European Commission suddenly decided to declare nuclear power to be green, there is a big discussion going on about the possible climate-saving qualities of nuclear energy. 

This discussion also affects us locally. The Netherlands has its own nuclear power plant in Borssele but there is also one much closer. The Belgian nuclear power plant Tihange is situated only 50km from Maastricht. Tihange provoked great debates in the last years after different malfunctions became public. These included for example microcracks that have already been discovered in 2014 and since then multiplied. Although many people in the regions of Maastricht and Aachen expressed their concern, organized demonstrations and even opened a lawsuit before the European Court of Justice, the reactor is still in operation. While it was deactivated a few times, it is not supposed to be fully deactivated before 2025. In the case of any sort of incident, at least 5.76 million people living 75km around the power plant would be affected.

Thus, the question of nuclear energy concerns us directly, especially if countries plan on increasing the use of this energy.

When looking for advantages and disadvantages of nuclear energy, many websites greatly advocate the building of new power plants. They state that the negative ideas about nuclear waste are a misconception and there is no actual harm to the environment or people due to strict safety regulations. Actual accidents are only an exception and one would have to balance the fear of meltdowns and nuclear waste against the threats of global warming. Actually most of the ‘pros-and-cons’ articles about nuclear energy ended up being very positive towards this form of energy generation, listing all the advantages of nuclear energy and downplaying most disadvantages as concerns of a paranoid public.

So, let us look then at all these advantages that nuclear energy has to offer:

Advantages

First and foremost, generating nuclear energy is carbon-neutral and thus declared environmentally friendly. Since the aim of the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to only 1.5. C° cannot be achieved with renewable energies (yet), advocates of nuclear energy insist that this goal can only be reached with nuclear power – especially with the world’s growing desire for ever more energy. Further, nuclear energy is supposed to be very sustainable. Not only are nuclear power plants extremely long-living but the fuel used for nuclear energy is Uranium. And the world’s Uranium deposits are very big. In fact, at our current trajectory, it could serve for at least 80 more years. Simultaneously, countries like Japan and France are already working on technology for recycling the spent nuclear fuel so that it can be used again. In the future, it might also be possible to use the fuel Thorium which would be even more environmentally-friendly.

Another advantage of nuclear energy is its high efficiency. Nuclear power plants are very reliable because they can run constantly and need less fuel to produce the same amount of energy as for example fossil fuel. Even further, the amount of energy generated can be adjusted to the actual consumption levels.

And last but not least, nuclear energy is also relatively cheap, excluding the initial building cost of a power plant. The actual generation of energy is not expensive and makes nuclear power an affordable energy source. And while the building of power plants is still costly, future standardization and repetition would make it less expensive.

Nevertheless, the articles also acknowledge the possible problems of such power generating, These include the danger of accidents and the burden of nuclear waste. Yet, for every of those negative conceptions, nuclear advocates already have solutions. Accidents are incredibly rare and can always be blamed on human error or natural disaster, never the system. With even stricter safety regulations now, it becomes even more unlikely that something might happen. While nuclear waste is toxic and its disposal costly and effortful, countries are already researching on how to reuse waste or store it temporarily.

This sounds incredibly promising. So, do we need to admit to having made a mistake by demeaning nuclear energy a little too early? Should we, despite fears and prejudices, start supporting this form of energy generation? Even without agreeing with nuclear energy, one has to recognize the present lack of many efficient alternatives. Could nuclear energy thus be the easy solution to all of this? Let’s first look at the downsides that have been so optimistically downplayed by most articles (and the EU).

Disadvantages
Photo by Ilja Nedilko on Unsplash

Let us first look at the greatest advantage of nuclear energy in the fight against climate change: it doesn’t produce carbon emissions. This might be true in the case of energy generation. However, the processes other than the actual energy generation still produce carbon emissions.

These include the mining of Uranium, its processing, the transportation and finally the construction of power plants. Adding to that, nuclear power plants need an excessive amount of water in order to cool their reactor temperatures. Many power plants are even built on waterways, creating dangerous hotspots for aquatic species (and of course humans) in the case of an accident.

Speaking of accidents: while nuclear power advocates argue that those are only the exception, this knowledge doesn’t really help if you are affected by the exception. Arguing that accidents are never due to system failures but only human errors or caused by natural disasters is also not convincing. We ARE human, so the possibility of human error will never be fully eliminated. And the argument of natural disasters is even less convincing, seeing that the whole point of the discussion around nuclear energy is the ongoing climate crisis. And this crisis includes – exactly – the increase of natural catastrophes. The risk of accidents will never be zero and it is very questionable whether the people deciding on using nuclear energy would like to live next to such a power plant.

If an accident happens, the consequences are disastrous and long-lasting. Radioactive fuel takes centuries to dispose of and radiation can cause conditions like genetic deformities, cancer or blood diseases, to name only a few.

Even if there is no accident, the disposal of radioactive waste is a great burden. It is extremely costly and needs highly-skilled technical training. Since nuclear power plants only existed for a little bit more than 70 years, we also cannot know much about long-term consequences. This is especially alarming, considering that it takes centuries for radioactive waste to dissolve, meaning that radioactive waste is incredibly dangerous, even after centuries. Uranium-235, for example, which is often used for nuclear energy, takes around 700 million years to decay into the (still radioactive) element Thorium-231. This means that after this time-span, half of it will have decayed into the still highly radioactive element Radium.

If we still haven’t figured out how to ensure the long-term safety of radioactive waste, how can we present nuclear energy as a way to protect not only the environment but also future generations? Even further, since the disposal of waste is so difficult, there is no guarantee that all countries using nuclear energies will actually endeavor to store the waste safely.

An example of this is Russia. In 2011, the ecological group Ecodefense published an official court ruling stating that the Russian facility for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, Mayak, had been illegally dumping radioactive waste in the nearby river Techa for decades. This caused the secret life-threatening contamination of the environment and villages and all around the site, resulting in terrible illnesses and deaths of the inhabitants.

With such recklessness of governments, this doesn’t even address the possibility of misusing Uranium for weapons.

To come back to the costs of waste disposal, adding to that is also the high cost of building nuclear power plants. Yes, future innovations and standardization might lower the construction costs but these innovations are not here yet. This is also the case for the proposed future use of Thorium or recycled fuel. Indeed, there is no actual guarantee that any of this will ever become practicable. Until then, nuclear energy is everything but renewable and only a temporary solution to an ongoing problem. Although there might be a great deposit of Uranium, it is still a limited resource. While nuclear energy supporters argue that we can use the existing Uranium for at least 80 years to come, there are also dissenting voices. One of them is Derek Abbott, Professor of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the University of Adelaide. He calculated that in the case of an upscaling of nuclear energy so that it meets the global energy need, we could be left with less than 5 years of Uranium supplies. This makes nuclear energy an even more short-lasting solution than expected. Also, ethically speaking, the expansion of nuclear energy and the resulting ‘uranium rush’ could easily result in the exploitation of many vulnerable people in developing countries. This would even further defeat the whole purpose of protecting not only our environment but also the people living in it.

Where does this leave us?

After looking at those advantages and disadvantages, it should be clear that nuclear energy is by far not the best and easiest solution it is presented as. Thus, instead of investing in future innovations in this sector, the money could as well be put towards research around renewable energy. And while we should recognize that solutions might not be this easy to find, it also doesn’t seem right to just pick the first idea right in front of us, simply for the purpose of postponing a problem that will not suddenly disappear after a few years.

We cannot make up for the political ignorance surrounding climate change until now. But shouldn’t we then make sure we make sustainable and responsible decisions now?

Sources

just energy: Pros and Cons of Nuclear Energy: Safety, Cost, & Efficiency. Available: https://justenergy.com/blog/pros-and-cons-of-nuclear-energy-safety-cost-efficiency/

Office of Nuclear Energy (2019, June 18). 9 Notable Facts About the World’s First Nuclear Power Plant – EBR-I. Available: https://www.energy.gov/ne/articles/9-notable-facts-about-worlds-first-nuclear-power-plant-ebr-i 

Office of Nuclear Energy (2021, March 29). Advantages and Challenges of Nuclear Energy. Available: https://www.energy.gov/ne/articles/advantages-and-challenges-nuclear-energy

McCloy, J. (2019, April 2). What is Nuclear Energy? A Full Pros and Cons Analysis. Green Coast. Available: https://greencoast.org/nuclear-energy-pros-and-cons/

Gaille, L. (2017, February 9). 26 Important Nuclear Energy Pros and Cons. Vitanna. Available: https://vittana.org/26-important-nuclear-energy-pros-and-cons

McDonald, S.M.(2021, October 12). Is Nuclear Power Our Best Bet Against Climate Change? Boston Review. Available: https://bostonreview.net/articles/is-nuclear-power-our-best-bet-against-climate-change/

International Atomic Energy Agency: Nuclear power and climate change. Available: https://www.iaea.org/topics/nuclear-power-and-climate-change

Goldstein, J. S.; Qvist, S. A.; Pinker, S. (2019, April 6). New York Times. Available: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/06/opinion/sunday/climate-change-nuclear-power.html

Keating, D. (2018, February 4). Belgium’s Neighbors Fear A Nuclear Incident. Forbes. Available: https://www.forbes.com/sites/davekeating/2018/02/04/belgiums-neighbors-fear-a-nuclear-incident/

Limb, L. (2022, February 8). Fossil gas and nuclear are now ‘green’ says the EU, but what does this mean for us? euronews.green. Available: https://www.euronews.com/green/2022/02/02/fossil-gas-and-nuclear-are-now-green-says-the-eu-but-what-does-this-mean-for-us

Zyga, L. (2011, May 11). Why nuclear power will never supply the world’s energy needs. phys.org. Available: https://phys.org/news/2011-05-nuclear-power-world-energy.html 

European Parliament (2013, September 25). Technical problems at Doel and Tihange nuclear power stations. Available: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/E-7-2012-008256_EN.html

Argonne National Laboratory (2005, August). Natural Decay Series: Uranium, Radium, and Thorium. Available: http://www-eng.lbl.gov/~shuman/NEXT/MATERIALS&COMPONENTS/Background_measurement/natural-decay-series.pdf 

Nuclear-Risks: Mayak, Russia. Available: http://www.nuclear-risks.org/en/hibakusha-worldwide/mayak.html 

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