Nuclear fission energy – A solution to climate change? (Part 2)

by Hayd Mohamed

Part 2: Current policies on nuclear fission energy

Current Policy

Within this section of the series, the socio-political sides of nuclear energy will be explored. Nuclear energy represents 20% of electricity generated in the United States [1]. Some countries in East Asia such as Japan have made the decision to restart their nuclear reactors; in 2019 this led to a 4% nuclear energy increase [2]. Considering that nuclear power does not directly emit as much carbon dioxide in comparison to other energy sources, it could consequently become more widely used in the future as an alternative, going some way to help in the fight against climate change [1]. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has foreseen nuclear power as a pivotal player in limiting global warming to 1.5°C by 2050 whilst paving the way for a transition to clean power [3].

The proportion that nuclear power plays in the electricity mix is variable across countries, with some countries more inclined to use it over others. There are a number of countries that are heavily in favour of nuclear power: the United States (US), who are the world’s largest producer [4]. The US was once a powerhouse for uranium mining ores in the atomic age, which occurred after WW2 during the nuclear arms race [4]. However, in recent years public approval of nuclear energy has declined. 

Nuclear Disaster and Public Disapproval

The Chernobyl nuclear accident of 1986 and the Fukushima Daiichi accident in 2011 were both disasters that caused widespread devastation and the loss of life [5]. The Chernobyl incident in Ukraine (which was a part of the Soviet Union at the time) resulted in 6,000 people, including children, developing thyroid cancer [5]. This was due to the exposure of radiation; scientists estimate that even today the general vicinity of the former plant will remain uninhabitable for the next 20,000 years [5]. However, the aftermath of the explosion was not just limited to Ukraine but affected many parts of Europe as a whole. East Germany, which was also a part of the Soviet Union, was also negatively affected by the Chernobyl incident with information regarding the fallout being suppressed to reduce the true extent of the disaster. Additionally, ecosystems were disturbed (with measurable effects until now) in Germany with many mushrooms and wild game being contaminated with Caesium- 137 [8]. As such, the negative public opinion of nuclear power in Germany can be attributed to the detrimental and concrete impacts on the environment and on human health.

Chernobyl and Fukushima symbolises the devastation that can be linked to nuclear power for many people, with both incidents triggering an anti-nuclear movement. Following the Fukushima Daiichi, Japan decided to shut down all nuclear power plants: opting for more expensive alternative electricity options as a result. Now, alongside the growing global shifts towards nuclear energy, Japan has decided to restart some of their nuclear power plants [1].

Those incidents are not the only devastations that are associated with nuclear power. There is concern over the reintroduction of nuclear programmes which could lead to the weaponisation of nuclear energy [11]. The key link between energy and weaponry lies within the enrichment process and not the reactors themselves. Nuclear weapons are not built using nuclear reactor fuel but the enrichment of the fuel further [11]. Nations can therefore conceal the true nature of nuclear energy, by stating that their intentions are to develop enrichment technology to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — when they actually want to start making warheads instead [11]. This is another huge problem that the increased use of nuclear energy poses and something that must be considered when discussing it as a solution to climate change.

The Lifespan of Nuclear Reactors

In addition to the contested public opinion surrounding nuclear power, the lifespan of nuclear reactors is relatively short. Belgium plans to completely dismantle their nuclear power production by 2025, despite it generating over half the country’s electricity but their current reactors have exceeded the end of their life span and the continued use of these reactors could cause some negative ramifications in the future if not closed [9, 10]. Thirty years is the approximate age associated with nuclear reactors before they are decommissioned; this has proved problematic as it is one of the biggest downfalls to nuclear power as an alternative to carbon emitting energy sources [6].

Nuclear energy and Water Shortage

Nuclear energy, despite its downfalls, has the potential to be not only a cost-effective  renewable energy source (in some instances) but also can prove beneficial in the fight against water scarcity [7]. Desalination technologies have proved successful in tackling this issue, with the ever-growing pressure on the amount of accessible freshwater people have turned to saline (salt) water as a possible option. The majority of desalination plants globally are powered by fossil fuels while carbon dioxide is emitted during the process. Nuclear reactors on the other hand can power these desalination plants without contributing to the emissions of greenhouse gases [7]. Other renewable energy options, such as solar power, can also play a crucial role within desalination as not only is it cheaper but it also does not require large amounts of water, compared to a nuclear power plant.

Overall, the discussion surrounding increased use of nuclear fission energy is a long and contested one. There are strong arguments to be made for nuclear energy as a solution to climate change, but there are also very stark disadvantages which have been laid out within the series. In summary, nuclear energy will not necessarily solve our fight against climate change despite all of its advantages. Had measures been put in place several years ago, it might have proved a bigger player in combating climate change. Furthermore, the narrative surrounding nuclear energy varies globally, with some countries heavily in favour of it as an electricity source and others highly sceptical of it. Whether nuclear fission energy is a solution to the climate crisis is not clear cut.

References:

[1] ‘International Nuclear Energy Policy and Cooperation’, Office of Nuclear Energy, URL: https://www.energy.gov/ne/nuclear-reactor-technologies/international-nuclear-energy-policy-and-cooperation (accessed on 1 May 2021)
[2] ‘Global Electricity Review March 2020’, Ember, URL: https://ember-climate.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Ember-2020GlobalElectricityReview-Web.pdf (accessed on 1 May 2021)
[3] ‘These countries have the most nuclear reactors’, World Economic Forum, URL: countries-that-have-the-most-nuclear-power-alternative-energy-electricity-climate-change (accessed on 1 May 2021)
[4] Tom DiChristopher, ‘Nuclear wasteland: The explosive boom and long, painful bust of American uranium mining’, CNBC, URL: https://www.cnbc.com/2018/08/04/the-miners-that-fuel-americas-nuclear-power-and-atomic-arsenal-are-di.html (accessed on 1 May 2021)
[5] Erin Blakemore, ‘The Chernobyl Disaster: what happened, and the long term impact’, National Geographic, URL: https://www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/environment/2019/05/chernobyl-disaster-what-happened-and-long-term-impact (accessed on 1 May 2021)
[6] ‘The World’s Aging Nuclear Power Fleet’, National Geographic, URL: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/great-energy-challenge/2011/the-worlds-aging-nuclear-power-fleet/ (accessed on 1 May 2021)
[7] James Conca, ‘How 1,500 Nuclear-Powered Water Desalination Plants Could Save The World From Desertification’, Forbes, URL: https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2019/07/14/megadroughts-and-desalination-another-pressing-need-for-nuclear-power/ (accessed on 1 May 2021)
[8] ‘Radioactive contamination of mushrooms and wild game’, Bundesamt für Strahlenschultz, URL: https://www.bfs.de/EN/topics/ion/environment/foodstuffs/mushrooms-game/mushrooms-game.html;jsessionid=9712FD31C3BE719C5A13F17CB2ADC0AB.1_cid374 (accessed on 1 May 2021)
[9] Belgium’s creaky nuclear reactors raise risk of winter power outages‘, Deutsche Welle (DW), URL: https://www.dw.com/en/belgiums-creaky-nuclear-reactors-raise-risk-of-winter-power-outages/a-45835339 (accessed on 1 May 2021)
[10] ‘Nuclear Power in Belgium’, World Nuclear Association, URL: https://world-nuclear.org/information-library/country-profiles/countries-a-f/belgium.aspx (accessed on 1 May 2021)
[11] Nathanael Johnson, ‘Nukes of Hazard’, Grist, URL: https://grist.org/article/nuclear-is-scary-lets-face-those-fears/ (accessed 1 May 2021)

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