The pros and cons of nuclear energy
Scientists say nuclear power is essential to efforts to tackle climate change
Nuclear energy is usually in the news “because something’s gone wrong”.
Or so says The Economist’s Oliver Morton, but this week the issue is making headlines after Whitehall sources confirmed reports that Downing Street is having second thoughts about a tie-up with China to produce a new generation of nuclear power stations in the UK.
If energy policy does become “another victim” of the “geopolitical recalibration” of relations between the two nations, the UK may struggle to hit its target of achieving non-carbon energy generation by 2050, says The Telegraph.
Yet while this dilemma highlights potential benefits of nuclear energy, critics point to the potential risks of, as Morton puts it, things “going wrong” with the technology - with the threat of nuclear warfare further increasing opposition.
In the UK, attitudes to the energy source have shifted over the decade following the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster. In 2012, the first in a series of government surveys to gauge public opinion about nuclear energy and climate change found that 30% of households believed the risks of nuclear outweighed the benefits.
But the latest poll findings, published in May, show that this figure has dropped to 17%, while 38% of the more than 4,000 households quizzed felt that nuclear provides a safe source of energy for the UK. Opinions about nuclear energy’s role in combating climate change have also changed, with 34% in 2012 agreeing that nuclear could help in the UK’s push to tackle the problem, rising to 38% in 2021.
Many experts say that as a reliable energy source with low to zero emissions, nuclear has a vital role to play in helping governments worldwide reach decarbonisation targets. The nuclear issue is by no means clear cut, however, with opponents pointing to various potential disadvantages and hazards.
Generating energy using nuclear fission requires significantly less fuel - specifically, uranium - than the comparative amount that coal or gas power plants need to produce the equivalent level of power. “You can fuel a nuclear reactor with tonnes of fuel, rather than thousands of tonnes of fuel,” notes Morton in The Economist. And that makes nuclear a competitive energy choice.
Compared with renewables, nuclear is also a highly reliable power source. In the US, nuclear generators have typically operated at more than 90% capacity over the past decade, while wind power capacity has not topped 44%, according to latest US Energy Information Administration data. Nuclear has also consistently operated at higher capacity than hydropower or solar.
Once in operation, nuclear power plants produce very low to zero amounts of direct greenhouse gas emissions. According to the World Nuclear Association (WNA), the impact of nuclear energy on carbon emissions is “roughly equivalent to removing one-third of all cars from the world’s roads”.
After hydropower, nuclear power is the second-largest source of low-carbon energy used to generate electricity, the International Atomic Energy Agency reports. The creation, maintainance and eventual decommissioning of a nuclear plant does contribute to carbon emissions - but the amount is minimal compared with that produced by the running of coal and oil plants.
Nuclear energy has public health benefits that have already saved vast numbers of lives worldwide, according to a 2013 research paper on the impact of energy sources on mortality rates. The US researchers calculated that nuclear power had prevented an average of 1.84 million deaths between 1971 and 2009 that would have been caused by air pollution resulting from burning fossil fuels.
By contrast, proponents argue, although exposure to radioactive waste can be lethal, the public’s risk of exposure is very low. The 1986 explosion at Chernobyl claimed the lives of 31 people in the immediate aftermath, but was the disastrous result of “a not very good nuclear plant being run in a terrible way”, says The Economist’s Morton.
And a United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation report published earlier this year found that radiation resulting from the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown in 2011 had resulted in no documented “adverse health effects” among local residents “that could be directly attributed to radiation exposure from the accident”.
Threat of nuclear weapons
While an increasing number of governments are embracing nuclear as an energy source, alarm bells may ring when a country “in an unstable part of the world” begins “getting interested in nuclear technology”, says The Economist’s Morton.
Earlier this month, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that Iran has begun producing enriched uranium metal. Enriched uranium is used to make fuel for nuclear reactors, but is also used in the production of nuclear weapons. The move by Tehran is a breach of a treaty signed in 2015 with the group of world powers known as the P5+1 - China, France, Russia, the UK, the US and Germany - that had significantly reduced Iran’s stockpile of uranium, and limited the country’s research into and development of nuclear technology.
Tehran has told the IAEA that Iran’s aim is to develop fuel for a research reactor, but France, Britain and Germany has issued a joint statement expressing “grave concerns'' about the move.
Nuclear fission is a much more expensive method of energy production than those involving coal or gas. The cost of running and maintaining nuclear plants is high, while the bills for building the sites are vast. The UK’s Hinkley Point plant was originally expected to cost £18bn and to begin operating in 2017. But EDF, the French energy giant behind the project, announced in January that the final bill is now expected to reach up to £23bn, in part owing to Covid-related delays that mean the plant is unlikely to open until 2026.
However, standardisation of power station designs can help to reduce costs. France has adopted this approach and now derives 70% of the nation’s electricity supply from nuclear power.
Management and disposal of radioactive waste is an ongoing issue in nuclear power production. This waste can be harmful to both humans and the environment, and must be treated and conditioned to turn it into a “safe, stable and manageable form” before being transported and stored, the IAEA explains.
Yet according to Chemical and Engineering News correspondent Mitch Jacoby, “tens of thousands of metric tons of radioactive waste that accumulated from commercial power plants and years of national defence operations continue to age at sites around the globe”. In the US, massive quantities of solid and liquid waste are stored in temporary containers - and while “corrosion experts are doing their part” to protect people from potential harm caused by the hazardous waste, “the stockpile keeps growing”, warns Jacoby.