Why hasn’t the World already conquered Climate Change, when it has had Nuclear power for decades now?
Nuclear power or Nuclear energy is the greatest potent energy, human civilization has ever harnessed till date. To be precise, nuclear power is the use of various nuclear reactions to produce electricity. The first ever Nuclear powerplant to generate electricity was built in the year 1954 at the Soviet-Union. Whereas the first commercial nuclear power-station was built at Windscale, England. There was a drastic rise in the global scale of nuclear capacity-generated-electricity in the 1960s and 1970s. The rise was so much so that by the 1990s, 18% of the world’s electricity needs were being fulfilled by nuclear power-plants. Fast-forward 30 years to 2020s and the global electricity needs from nuclear-energy has declined to a meager 10%. But more of it later!
The world of today faces an existential threat in the form of Climate change and Global warming. Carbon emissions from the burning of fossil-fuels are touching record-highs. Severe drought’s, tsunamis and hurricanes are more common than ever. The human evolution has seen advanced technological superiority in the last two centuries, but is yet to find a sustainable and planet friendly energy source? or maybe it has? What about Nuclear Energy?
Is Nuclear energy the answer to Climate change?
Climate change has accelerated to, what scientists thought to be a distant issue for our civilization. It’s like we are living on the edge, where time is definitely not by our side. The Paris Climate Agreement requires a collaborated global approach of countries to limit their carbon emissions, so as to keep the average Earth’s temperature below 1.5° C. But with the looming threat, our dependency on fossil-fuels has also increased exponentially in the last few decades. Experts believe that Nuclear energy might be our best bet to fight the upcoming global catastrophe “Climate Change”. But what makes nuclear energy an ideal candidate in the first place?
So firstly and most importantly, Nuclear powerplants produce low carbon-emissions during operation. To put in perspective, Nuclear power produces 70 times less the carbon emissions for the equivalent output of electricity, in comparison to those produced from coal or other fossil fuels.
Reliable and Replaceable
Fossil fuels have been dominating our energy requirements for a couple of century’s now, because of their reliability and deployment in large-scale operations, while maintaining efficiency. Nuclear-Power can do the same, minus the carbon emissions of fossil fuels. Nuclear powerplants can be deployed at a large-scale, which can help replace fossil-fuels directly. Renewable sources like wind and solar energy on the other hand are dependent on weather conditions or natural conditions for operations, which makes them unreliable sources of energy.
Tried and Tested
As mentioned earlier, nuclear powerplants were in an uprising in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, which was way before of our understanding of the climate change. The 1973 Oil crisis, forced countries like France and Japan, who relied heavily on oil for electricity generation to look elsewhere. France invested heavily in nuclear power, so much so that it became the largest nuclear-electricity power in the entire world. By 2019, France was producing 70% of its entire electricity from nuclear sources, which also implies to why France’s electricity emissions are one-sixth to that of European average emissions. The transformation period was rapid, as France within a span of two decades showed the entire world, that nuclear energy can indeed be expanded to speeds that can help combat climate change.
What stopped the Nuclear energy era then?
By the mid 1970s anti-nuclear activism was gaining a wider appeal and acclamation, you see working with nuclear-energy wasn’t the most safest thing in the world. After all Nuclear radiation was a major health hazard for all living beings surrounding it. People were just not ok, with a power-plant in near proximity to them. Alas, a few nuclear powerplant accidents like the three mile island, Chernobyl and Fukushima didn’t help it’s case either.
The Chernobyl incident of 1986, is rightly the worst nuclear disaster in history. The incident caused 56 direct-deaths along with a hefty financial clean up of about 18 billion Soviet Rubles in that era. Operator negligence and critical design flaws were subjected as the primary reason behind this disaster. This single incident played a major role in the overall reduction of new powerplants globally. As a subject to this incident, countries like Italy voted out against nuclear-power in a 1987 referendum. Nuclear energy in a matter of weeks became the no.1 villain in the public eye.
The Fukushima incident
All hopes for a nuclear renaissance took a major setback during the 2011 Fukushima accident of 2011. The nuclear disaster was caused as a result of a large tsunami, which in turn was caused by an earthquake. The powerplant suffered three-core-meltdowns due to a failure of emergency cooling systems. About 150,000 people were part of emergency evacuations within 20 km radius of the plant. As a result of this disaster, questions regarding nuclear safety and nuclear energy programs resurfaced. Following this incident, Japan started a process of shutting down its nuclear power-reactors across the country. Germany also joined the mix recently, as it approved plans of shutting all its reactors in 2022.
And then there are the consequences of using Nuclear based energy
Nuclear energy might be a low carbon energy source, but it’s still not the most environment-friendly thing for the planet. And then there is the issue of public safety and order, and the financial costs involved with this technology. So here are the issues a nuclear-based-energy oriented world would have to overcome…….
Nuclear reactors take a long time between planning and operation
Thanks to anti-nuclear activism and sentiments, building a nuclear reactor has become a lengthy and hefty process overtime. The planning-to-operation of all nuclear plants ever built have been about 10–19 years, if not more. And when the fight is against an agent as colossal as climate change, time is something our civilization doesn’t have anymore. We are already on the verge of breaching our climate pacts, with record carbon emissions in the next 5 years or so.
The never ending Financial costs of nuclear plants
Nuclear plants have been losing out on investors for the last two decades or so. Powerplants typically take high capital costs for building and operations. Nuclear fuel (Uranium or Plutonium) costs account for about 30% of the operating costs and are subject to market fluctuations. The average cost for building a 1100 MW nuclear plant costs between $6–9 billion. The average levelized cost of production (LCOE) for a nuclear plant in 2018 was estimated to be $151, to that of a onshore windfarm was $43. However, all of these costs exempt the financial ramifications of any major nuclear meltdowns, as was the case in Chernobyl, Fukushima and others. For instance, the financial ramifications for the nuclear clean up at the Fukushima plant was estimated to be anywhere between $470 to $650 billion.
In addition, storing nuclear wastes for thousands of years in storage’s require millions and billions of dollars. In the U.S alone, about $500 million is spent to safely store nuclear wastes in storage facilities. The worst part is that the spending must continue for thousands of years, in return for no revenue stream from electricity sales.
The risk of advancing nuclear weapons
The growth of nuclear energy has been historically linked to threat of nations advancing to manufacture nuclear weapons. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its 2014 report identified the weapons proliferation risk as a barrier to increasing development of nuclear energy. The building of a nuclear reactor in countries where there is no nuclear facility, allows the country to import Uranium. And if the country wishes to, it can secretly enrich the uranium to create nuclear weapons. With that being said, any country with a nuclear reactor has the ability to develop an atomic bomb, which enhances the risk of conflict and wars.
The Mining concern
The mining of uranium poses the risk of lung-cancer among miners, because of uranium’s property of consisting natural radon gas. The decay products left from radon gases are carcinogenic in nature, which increases the risk of cancer among miners. A CDC study conducted among 4000 uranium miners between 1950 and 2000 showed that about a 405 of them died with lung cancer. The risk of death (lung cancer) from uranium mining has been assessed to be six times to that from smoking.
The problem of nuclear waste
Lastly, nuclear wastes take hundreds of thousands of years to erode completely. The consumed fuel rods from nuclear plants (radioactive wastes) contained in several sites, require hundreds of thousands of years to be maintained and funded, which is way beyond the lifeline of any nuclear plant(35 years). Any leaks in these storage facilities might turn out to be catastrophic for nearby water bodies, crops, animals and humans.
The Principal author of the blog Just Logically Speaking, Susanta Ray is an enthusiast for information and learning. He thrives in subjects related to Modern Technology, Science, History, Space, Finance and Global Affairs.
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