There is no doubt that we are experiencing a clean energy revolution.
Wind energy is setting sail and solar power making huge strides with more panels springing up on our roofs than ever before. Even the pandemic crisis could not halt the growth of renewables with generation increasing by 5% in 2020. Amazing!
Nuclear, on the other hand, seems to have earned the bad guy badge in public eye. When we think nuclear, our minds sweep back to the devastating aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster or the Fukushima accident. We are aware that there are safety concerns associated nuclear generation and these have informed our perception of its significance in the race to reduce carbon emissions.
However, is nuclear power really bad and does it have a part to play in energy transition?
I started to critically examine this question after listening to Michael Shellenberger in his TED Talk argue for the need to have large scale low-carbon energy sources like nuclear energy supplement for the limitations of renewables such as intermittency of supply and disposal of e-waste like solar panels after use. And I agree.... to a degree.
Energy demand growth currently outpaces renewable energy development meaning that net emissions are still on the rise. There has to be equilibrium and to achieve this, we have to reduce energy demand (which is a crucial topic for discussion), and increase the low-carbon power energy mix. This is where nuclear power comes to play.
A new question arises as to whether nuclear power is actually renewable or 'clean'. Clean energy is not exactly the same as renewable energy. Renewables must have the ability to be replenished at human timescale while clean energy (ideally) refers to zero-carbon emission energy sources. Hence, a clean energy source might not necessarily be renewable. Nuclear power falls in the clean energy category (I prefer the phrase 'low-carbon'). Even though its raw material, uranium, is not being replaced at a human timescale, nuclear energy releases no greenhouse gas from its operation and over its full lifetime have the same emissions as wind power, half the emissions of hydro power and a quarter of solar emissions. According to the International Energy Agency, nuclear power is the second largest low-carbon power source next to hydropower and has 'avoided 50Gt of CO2 emissions in the last 50 years'.
It is important to note that removing nuclear power from the energy mix would cause an energy shortfall as other supplies like solar and wind would have to fill in the gap. Consequently, this would make the energy transition process more expensive requiring more effort to reach climate targets.
Removing nuclear power from the energy mix would cause an energy shortfall as other supplies like solar and wind would have to fill in the gap.
I also have to point out that the popular renewable energy sources like solar and wind are variable, and do not operate 24/7. Although, energy storage is coming to the rescue, nuclear power can also contribute to limiting the impacts from fluctuations of renewables and keeping the electricity grid stable since it supplies constant electricity. This further alleviates storage costs and minimises storage capacity needed .
Nuclear power poses numerous threats that keeps me on edge as regards its use, with the most glaring to me being the health risks (radiation exposure, lung cancer) to workers particularly during uranium mining. See the story of the Navajo people. More so, nuclear accidents could result from unforeseen circumstances and are usually fatal. Security risks also pose a challenge, for example, the probability of sabotage of nuclear plants by terrorists and the use of waste as a weapon, are worrisome. Meanwhile, storing nuclear waste without leakage is still a bit of an issue.
How do we then manage these threats?
I have spent days looking at this question and I still cannot conclude at this point. Though, I believe these risks can be managed and minimised with the rigorous design of nuclear plants as well as with strongly upheld safety regulations, I cannot ignore the questions that spark uncertainty in my mind because of factors beyond our control. What if an unpredicted natural disaster happens? How do we prevent nuclear terrorism?
I have unburdened myself with finding the perfect conclusion and would leave this open for discussion. So, what are your thoughts? Are you for or against nuclear?
Some have suggested fusion energy with reduced likelihood of catastrophic failure and lesser radioactive waste produced but it is still very much in theory and has been for 70 years.