Nuclear energy offers a reliable, highly-dense electrical energy supply and is, therefore, possibly critical for overcoming the challenges of meeting consumer demands in a climate-constrained energy future.
Motivated chiefly by the 1973 oil price crisis, the global generation of nuclear energy used for electricity increased by 355% between the early 1970s and the late 2000s. The application of nuclear energy has since stagnated at 11% of total energy supplying global electricity demands albeit at disproportionate rates globally. Some countries rely on nuclear heavily, such as France which generates 70% of its electricity from nuclear power, with a smaller figure of 40% in Sweden as hydropower dominates.
Climatologist James Hansen argued that nuclear power paves a viable pathway forward in climate change mitigation. The technology and intellect needed to manage its systems have existed since the early 1900s. Nuclear also has one of the lowest marginal costs for electricity generation compared to other renewables and is practically cost-free when in complete operation. Nuclear energy’s chief importance for a zero-carbon future is its highly efficient energy production, 90% compared to alternative energy technologies like solar which has an efficiency of near 15-35%. Over the past fifty years, nuclear energy has offset 60 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide otherwise emitted from fossil fuel substitutes – an amount equivalent to the average annual emissions of fifteen billion houses.
Nuclear power is uniquely scalable and environmentally advantageous – the amount of energy potentially provided by a truck full of coal is equal to a soft-ball size of Uranium-235, the most common fuel for nuclear energy. Nuclear power presents a promising high-density fuel supply for meeting future energy demands, further supporting jobs, economic growth, and national security.
Nonetheless, challenges for nuclear energy include; high capital costs, problems regarding waste materials, and the risk of an accident like Fukushima occurring again.
Firstly, the capital costs for nuclear power range from $7675 to $12,500/kW compared with a coal plant which costs near half this amount, $3000 to $8400/kW according to the World Nuclear Association. Capital costs include everything from the materials needed for the energy infrastructure and equipment to logistical demands like land or property acquisition and consultant or statutory fees. Nuclear power is, therefore, cost competitive with other forms of carbon-free electricity per energy unit except when there is direct access to low-cost fossil fuels.
Moreover, the potentially radioactive waste from the leftovers of energy reactions and heavy water by-products is hazardous to the environment and human health if not disposed of correctly. Contact with waste can cause numerous issues from thyroid complications to cancers. This has raised large public health concerns for both humans and other living organisms exposed to its contaminants. Immediate economic costs of waste are also significant, amounting to a low-balling figure of $38 billion in the US for clean-up – an amount equivalent to Germany’s entire green energy investments during 2020 according to Bloomberg-UK analytics.
Whilst public health concerns are perfectly understandable following associations with nuclear weapons and common understandings of the ill-effects of ionising radiation, such rationales are often hyperbolic and influenced greatly by anecdotal beliefs. Firstly, civilian nuclear power plants do not have fuel levels enriched enough for nuclear-bomb-like explosions. Secondly, health concerns are often taken out of context, understood clearly by the 2011 Fukushima disaster.
The 2011 Tohoku earthquake triggered an automatic SCRAM of all operating reactors at the Fukushima plant, leading to an explosion that exposed 25,000 nearby residents to a 12-25 mSv/person dosage of radiation according to WHO estimates. This dosage level translates into approximately 15-30 expected cancer-related mortalities in a given human lifespan, a minuscule number compared to the near 18,000 killed immediately by the Tohoku disaster itself. In another case, smoking-related health effects are momentous with its deadly dangers like cancer fatefully causing more than 480,000 deaths each year in the US.
Nuclear, like all other energy types, has its advantages and disadvantages, undoubtedly making it a highly contentious power source with worthwhile benefits for the future if managed appropriately.
Whilst the relatively cheap operating costs of nuclear power plants could overcome the high upfront capital costs of construction and implementation, it can take many years to build and function accordingly. In addition, the lower marginal costs of nuclear make it competitive for high-density energy generation but the imperative for rare and finite materials like uranium may compromise the energy's renewability. The complicated and potentially expensive costs of waste disposal, clean-ups and storage are still much lower for nuclear once the social, health and environmental costs of fossil fuels are accounted for, thus improving nuclear's long-term competitive advantage.
Climate change mitigation demands rapid reductions in global fossil-fuel dependency, and nuclear energy offers a source to progress towards a decarbonised economy.
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