Earth Matters: The case for nuclear energy and climate

Earth Matters: The case for nuclear energy and climate

By Lynn Singband

Nuclear power disasters are not a thing of the past with the Fukushima power plant disaster happening just 12 years ago.  Tsunami waves triggered by an earthquake damaged backup generators at the plant. The resulting loss of power caused the cooling systems to fail.  Even though the reactors had shut down, the rising heat spurred the fuel rods to overheat and melt down, leading to release of radiation. Subsequently, due to a series of events causing hydrogen gas buildup, there were multiple explosions that led to further release of radiation and expansion of the evacuation zone.

This is scary and as this accident showed the risk extends well beyond the immediate area of the accident.  The radiation from Fukushima was detected in California.  But the story doesn’t end there.  Though nuclear energy elicits strong reactions, often negative and rooted in fear more than in facts, it is an important piece of any response to climate change.

While it is not risk free, nuclear power also does not present the risk of a worldwide rise in temperatures due to greenhouse gas emissions that coal-fired power plants and natural gas power plants present.  Coal and natural gas as energy sources involve the burning of fossil fuels and therefore the release of greenhouse gas emissions.  At a time that the world needs to achieve net zero in greenhouse gas emissions, we cannot afford to persist in our resistance to nuclear power.

In terms of human health, nuclear energy is a much safer alternative to coal and natural gas and even if we increase the scale of our reliance on nuclear energy, we can reasonably expect that the risks to our lives and health will not increase but will notably improve because of the reduction in greenhouse gases and other pollutants.

Every fuel source has its problems and nuclear energy is no exception.  On balance though, it is less problematic than coal and natural gas because of its very low carbon footprint.  Nuclear power can help bridge the gap in energy from renewable energy sources until the technology advances sufficiently to enable a more complete transition to renewable energy sources.

We need energy for transportation, manufacturing, and heat.  Presently, only 16% of the world’s energy comes from low emissions sources.  Nuclear energy provides 4% of that 16%.  Coal, oil and gas, all fossil fuel based energy sources, make up the 84% that is not from low emission sources.  The primary goal is to electrify as much as possible to move away from burning fossil fuels.  Ideally, we produce electricity using renewable sources like wind, solar, and water.  But we are not yet able to transition all of our energy demands to renewable sources.

Nuclear energy provides a low emission way to transition from fossil fuel based energy faster while we develop the storage systems we need to transition to renewable energy sources.  The transition is and will be hard.  Not only is the technology not yet able to meet the storage needs, but the demand for electricity continues to increase.

Development of nuclear energy has stagnated in the last 20 years in most countries. France is a notable exception.  Nuclear energy provides 67% of France’s energy, demonstrating that it is possible to rely on nuclear energy as a primary source of energy on a large scale.  But the majority of existing reactors are old and costly to replace.  Building new ones is very expensive and can take 10 plus years to build. Korea, China, and Russia have been able to build reactors quickly and at competitive prices.  It is possible to do the same in the United States and to address concerns about nuclear waste and fears of accidents with new designs for smaller, more affordable nuclear power plants.

While renewable energy sources are the future, they have huge challenges to overcome before taking over as the main power source for the grid.  In the meantime, nuclear power can provide a source for a controllable and reliable load.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency: “With one of the lowest carbon footprints among low carbon technologies, 24/7 availability and the ability to operate flexibly, nuclear power can make an important contributor to the stability and security of a fully decarbonized power system and a good complement to renewable sources.”

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