In this blog entry I will explore the current state of nuclear energy, compare it to alternative technologies, and justify why I believe we should be building more nuclear plants. I started by rewatching Michael Shellenberger’s TEDx Talks, which are a bombardment of statistics supporting nuclear power.
These talks were hugely revelatory for me when I first watched them two years ago. First there’s the statistics on safety.
This measurement accounts for deaths caused by accidents and by pollution. Clearly, nuclear energy causes far fewer deaths per Watt-hour than fossil fuels. In fact, the rise of nuclear energy over the last 70 years has been estimated to have prevented 1.8 million deaths from pollution.
This is due to the nature of each energy technology’s waste. Fossil fuels pump billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. Solar and wind do not generate pollution, but they do have limited lifespans and are difficult to recycle. A modern solar panel might last 50 years and contains many toxic heavy metals. The International Renewable Energy Agency predicts that 6 million tons of solar panel waste will be generated annually by 2050, with that figure set to rise exponentially as we continue to ramp up solar panel production. Likewise, wind turbines use a lot of unrecyclable fibreglass and have a lifespan of no more than 25 years. These heavy metals and unrecyclable materials are likely to end up in landfills, where they are free to mix into the environment.
In contrast, nuclear is the only energy technology whose waste is not released into the environment.
I was surprised to learn just how little nuclear waste there is. The world generates about 6600 tons annually, which sounds like a lot but is a drop in the ocean compared to fossil fuel waste. This is a small enough quantity that it can be contained on-site for several years, before being transported to a permanent storage facility such as Onkalo. It is possible to use a lot of this waste by feeding it back into the nuclear reactor. France reuses about a third of its spent nuclear fuel. Future nuclear reactors may be able to run exclusively on our nuclear waste; I will explore this in the next blog.
Aside from nuclear waste, the other common safety concern regards nuclear disasters. Suffice to say, I think this risk has been hugely overblown by generalising two specific incidents to the entire industry. Even when discussing Chernobyl and Fukushima, the public vastly overestimates the resulting impact:
Although nuclear might not be renewable, we aren’t going to be worrying about uranium scarcity for hundreds of years. This is long enough that we cannot predict the impact of future uranium shortages now. For all we know, humanity could be mining asteroids for uranium or running on fusion power plants by then. Combine this with the lack of pollution, and it’s fair to say nuclear is just as sustainable as any renewable technology.
Nuclear energy is the only clean source of energy that is completely reliable – no dependency on wind, sun, or rain. This is extremely important as we will need an alternate supply of reliable energy if we are to shut down all fossil fuel plants. Energy storage technology is simply not capable of meeting the entire global energy demands, meaning we cannot rely on renewables alone.
I was surprised to see how high the global energy shares of nuclear and hydro were. Wind and solar are very recent developments, and their growth is impressive. Combined wind and solar energy generation is set to surpass nuclear generation this decade. This process has been accelerated by the nuclear energy stagnation in recent years.
Clearly, the global deployment of nuclear power plants has dramatically slowed as compared to the 70s and 80s. This is largely attributed to the change in public opinion and regulations following the Three Mile Island meltdown in 1979 and the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. After these incidents, safety regulations surrounding the construction of nuclear power plants became much stricter, making them much more expensive to build. Cost is probably the biggest hurdle for nuclear power plants to overcome. Their large capital costs and long construction times mean they have a longer payback period than a comparatively sized gas power plant, deterring investors. However, once a nuclear plant has been constructed, it has very low running costs and can be very lucrative.
You’ll also notice the large drop in nuclear power generation in Japan in 2011. Following the Fukushima disaster, the country shut down all its reactors for several years, with coal and gas plants used to pick up the slack. Even now, Japan has only restarted 9 out of 54 of its reactors.
Germany is, in my opinion, what not to do. At one point nuclear energy provided 25% of the country’s electricity. But as part of their commitment to renewable energy, they have been phasing out nuclear, with the last plant set to shut down next year.
Just next door, France has always been the posterchild of nuclear energy, with its 56 nuclear power plants providing 70% of the country’s electricity. France is the world’s largest net exporter of electricity due to nuclear’s very low cost of generation; this generates over €3 billion per year for the country. France spent just 60% of Germany’s renewables budget on nuclear, and now gets almost twice the energy each year from that investment. France’s nuclear infrastructure could last 80 years, while Germany’s renewables will need to be replaced every 20-25 years, with costly disposals no doubt.
Lastly, China has been ramping up their nuclear infrastructure in recent years. If it weren’t for Asia, global nuclear energy generation would be decreasing. Western countries have been prematurely closing their reactors because they cannot justify the expensive upgrades to match new regulations. Perhaps the rise of the east is about to turn the tide of the nuclear industry.
Having now assessed current nuclear technology in terms of safety, cost-effectiveness, and environmental impact, what are my conclusions?
I have seen that nuclear energy has the potential to make a larger impact on our use of fossil fuels than solar or wind. A single nuclear reactor can easily generate as much power as 100 large offshore wind turbines or 20km2 of solar panels and do so continuously. The rate of nuclear power plant installations in the 1980s was astounding, and I can only imagine the impact on climate change that could have been made if this rate had continued.
No single technology can solve climate change – they each have their pros and cons. Renewables are a cheap alternative to fossil fuels, especially in suitable climes. Nuclear uniquely offers clean reliability, and is not location-specific. A combination of both technologies is required, which is why I believe we must rapidly reverse our current trajectory with nuclear.
I think Nuclear has two major hurdles to overcome: cost and public opinion. Solar is now the cheapest form of energy production, while nuclear is still more expensive than gas. Cost reductions could be achieved through standardised designs and more agreeable safety regulations, as was seen in France and South Korea. Public opinion is a major roadblock now and is part of the reason the safety regulations are unreasonably strict. I think this problem will require some ingenuity to solve and I plan to explore this in a future blog.