Hello everybody, this is a heavy one and probably one that’s going to rile some feathers and cause some controversy, but nonetheless, I think we should talk about it. I was recently on the radio to talk about sustainability and nuclear energy, a topic that I, honestly, had to research a lot before going on the air because I have just been living life with my wind-powered energy supplier and never given any other option a second thought. It has been all, renewable energy is yaaas queen, and coal and fossil fuels are no thanks fam. BUT nuclear energy has been coming up in debates about sustainability, so I decided to research it to bring you, the impact of nuclear energy *drama and confusion*.
First of all, why the heck do we need to talk about this? Well during the ’70s and ’80s lots of movements were actively campaigning against the use of nuclear energy, but over the years I’ve seen included in conversations about sustainable energy. The reason why that is because renewable sources of energy like wind or solar often do not meet consumer, or industry demands and are less dependable for a consistent source of constant power. Some places in the world also do not have the capacity or space to expand renewable energy, and this is where the nuclear industry is stepping in to replace fossil fuels.
Carbon dioxide emissions related to energy continue to rise, with a record of 33.1 billion tons in 2018. Actually carbon emissions have increased by more than 40% since 2000, and in 2017 fossil fuels produced more electricity than ever before. These facts have made the discourse of power and energy to reconsider the potential benefits of nuclear plants.
I definably think that this is one of those issues that might be super misunderstood, super affected by misinformation and fear, but since it’s becoming part of the energy agenda, I think we should find out how sustainable it actually is, especially in comparison to other energy sources.
How the heck? So I’ll try and explain how nuclear power works in the first place. What I have gathered is that nuclear energy comes from splitting atoms. When you split an atom there is an awful lot of energy that’s released. In the core of nuclear reactors, neutrons collide with uranium atoms, splitting them. The energy that released is used to heat water to around 520 degrees Fahrenheit. The hot water turns into steam, which is used to spin turbines that are connected to generators, and that my friends create electricity.
What are the pros?
- LOW GREENHOUSE GAS EMISSIONS: Compared to coal and gas, nuclear power has the lowest emissions of greenhouse gasses, because no fossil materials are used to fuel the plants. Nuclear energy also provides clean air in comparison to fossil fuels. A misconception about the nuclear towers is often that they emit pollution and smoke when in fact they are cooling towers, and they only emit vaporized water.
- HIGH POWER OUTPUT: Nuclear energy has a very high fuel to power ratio. A relatively small amount of uranium can fuel a 1000 megawatts electric plant and provide electricity to about half a million people.
- NO FOSSIL FUELS: nuclear energy does not rely on fossil fuels, the extraction of which comes with massive environmental impacts. Fossil fuels emit both co2 and methane, which is 20 times more potent than co2. Fossil materials are also what most plastic is based on, along with a wide range of other products and the thing is, it’s not going to be available forever, so being dependent on a resource that won’t be around forever is both environmentally and economically unsustainable.
- SPACIAL CAPACITY: I didn’t actually know this, or maybe I kind of did, but I didn’t think about it until recently, by many options for renewable energy require a lot of space in order to play an active role on the market. Solar and wind power requires 40-50 times more space than coal and over 100 times more space than gas, and between 75 and 150 times more space than nuclear energy. However, more occupied space is not always a bad thing, rooftops can be used for solar energy without bothering anybody, and wind turbines can easily function well out at sea or on fields used in agriculture to preserve space. A Danish CEO from a nuclear innovation company actually said that in Denmark we have some of the best conditions to use renewable energy, so nuclear power would not make sense here.
What are the cons?
- URANIUM AS A FUEL SOURCE: Although, our reserves of fossil fuels are decreasing, so is the amount of abundant uranium in the world. It is estimated that there is about 80 years’ worth of uranium left to power nuclear plants. So building tons of plants with no long term solution for fuel is just not sustainable, especially when we take into account that concrete, which the plants and cooling towers are made of, actually comes with its own large footprint. I know there are plants that are working on a functioning system with thorium instead, as well as some types of salt. But until this becomes a viable option, the nuclear industry is still dependent on a material that won’t be around for much longer.
- MINING: Uranium is in limited supply, but it’s also not easy to find. It has to be mined and mining always comes with environmental concerns such as loss of natural habitats and biodiversity.
- WASTE: managing nuclear waste is, in my opinion, one of the biggest challenges of this energy source. A typical nuclear plant generates 20 metric tons of nuclear waste every year, all of which are highly radioactive and potentially dangerous. We don’t have any other “safe” place to put it, which means that most nuclear waste is stored in temporary above-ground storage facilities. And generally speaking, this is not a safe solution. Nuclear fuel takes thousands of years to decompose to a stage of moderate safety, so we’ll cross our finger that these storage containers won’t ever leak or break in a span of thousands of years.
- TIME: it can take up to 10 years to build a nuclear power plant, and is depending on that sort of plan is unsustainable when we need change right now. Furthermore, a nuclear power plant costs billions of dollars, and the countries that might need cheap and dependable energy the most might not be able to effort such a down payment. Some innovators are researching how to make renewable energy into a more static and dependable option, while others are trying to figure out how to produce nuclear power with less radioactive waste, and from where I am standing it seems like we need both of these things to happen simultaneously.
Then there are the issues of safety, something that I assume a lot of people are wondering about, considering the previous nuclear accidents, just as a summary, this is the gist of it. In history there have been quite a few accidents, some of them leading to casualties, some of them leading to radiation poisoning and cancers, the latter have affected thousands of people in the local areas of the accidents. But as far as I could gather it’s not the best idea to only get your nuclear intel from HBO shows and old history books. Although there are still risks, studies generally categorize the energy solution as safe.
There are other concerns that the industry is acknowledging though, as the obvious risk of nuclear power plants being a target of terrorism. The combination of power plants and earthquakes also does not mix well, as we saw with the accident in Fukushima. There is also the notion that the more common and widespread nuclear energy will become, many experts fear that nuclear weapons will become more readily available as well. Safe sites for plants will also become rarer and rarer as fewer areas will be without risk of either droughts, floods, earthquakes, or hurricanes, with more extreme weather conditions being predicted as a result of climate change, there will most likely be less safe spaces to build a site without risk of natural disaster-related damages. So we have to assess if there will be enough safe sites to build the number of plants it would take to meet global demand. 11% of global electricity comes from nuclear sources today. Many accidents in the past, like Chernobyl, was caused by a mix of faulty design, lack of regulation, and inefficient safety protocols and quality control. A former member of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission said that: “A world more reliant on nuclear power would involve many plants in countries that have little experience with nuclear energy, no regulatory background in the field and some questionable records on quality control, safety and corruption.”, which would most likely lead to accidents. However, innovation in the field of renewables would be safer and it would give developing countries the opportunity to not be dependent upon other electricity.
My verdict? I can definitely see the upsides to nuclear power, like less co2 emissions, clean air, the value of the fuel to power ratio, and of course the amount of space required to power whole cities. BUT ignoring the fact that we still have to good plan when it comes to nuclear waste management should not be overlooked, and before that is sorted I don’t think I can support nuclear power. So far I have found that switching to a renewable energy supplier was super easy and I think it makes a lot of sense. The advantage of solar, wind, and hydro energy is the renewability, we’ll never run dry, which is both the case with fossil fuels and with nuclear energy as it looks now.