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Nuclear Energy's Triumph over Climate Change

- Busting the Myth

Sayantan Dey

Nuclear Energy

The sight of the firefighters burning up with radiation, the famous Bridge of Death ironically coming to life due to sheer ignorance, and innocent animals being killed systematically, just to ensure radiation sickness does not become hereditary, are still afresh in our minds from HBO's masterpiece “Chernobyl”. While it did show us the horrors nuclear energy carries with itself, we still choose to portray it as our savior in this battle against climate change, don’t we? With the United Nations recognising climate change as “the most systemic threat to humankind”, it is important now, more than ever, that a feasible solution is agreed on by the international community to mitigate it. To control carbon dioxide emissions and associated climate change, the world must reduce its dependency on fossil fuels, one of the major causes for increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. A popular alternative suggested in recent years has been the use of nuclear power as a substitute. Although it is being hailed as “clean”, “efficient”, “economical”, “safe”, let’s not be fooled by the false hope it plagues us with.

Even as the demand for electricity and subsequently, fuel goes up in modern society, a “deep decarbonisation” is required to fight climate change. Nuclear power makes a significant contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions while at the same time fulfilling the increasing energy demands of the growing world population. A small amount of radioactive material can produce energy for a long amount of time, making it more sustainable than conventional fossil fuels. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the use of nuclear power avoids the emission of nearly 2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide every year – the equivalent of taking over 400 million cars off the road per year.

Then why a false hope?

Nuclear Energy

 

Simply because, the downsides outweigh the benefits. The biggest concerns are regarding the lethal radiation footprint that the use of nuclear power leaves behind. According to World Business Academy, nuclear power plants continuously emit low levels of cancer-causing strontium-90 radiation during “normal” operations, and higher levels when there are serious problems such as the continuing leakage of radioactive water from the tsunami-damaged reactors at Fukushima, or the radiation leak that led to the instantaneous closure of the San Onofre nuclear reactor in Southern California in January 2012. Radiation sickness is common to people living close to the nuclear power plants. Even mining of radioactive material is harmful. For example, uranium mining can cause lung cancer because uranium mines contain natural radon gas, some decay products of which, are carcinogenic. Proper disposal of nuclear waste is also a concern. The storage of fuel rods in the same site as their reactors has given rise to hundreds of radioactive waste sites, around the world. They must be maintained and funded for a far longer time, beyond the lifetime of even the power plants themselves. These accumulations possess the larger risk of radioactive leaks which can damage water supplies, crops, animal and human life. But that’s not it.

What about the costs involved?

Building nuclear power plants are very uneconomical when factors such as costs of construction, operation, decommissioning, and waste disposal/storage come into concern. The funds needed for construction and maintenance are great, not to mention the time lag between planning and actual operation. Millions of dollars have to be spent to safeguard nuclear waste and this cost will only increase with increased accumulation. And, that’s not the worst part. The cost of nuclear energy keeps increasing. The EPR nuclear reactor, in France, is now expected to cost three times more than initially announced. Furthermore, massive investments would be required to fix the ageing reactors to prolong their operations. Why is this worse? Because the whole fleet would have to be replaced within the next 10 or 20 years. The contribution of nuclear energy will continue to decline, as the reactors currently under construction are too few to replace the many ageing reactors that will close within the next decades.

Additionally, the risk of meltdowns is high. To date, 1.5% of all nuclear power plants ever built have melted down to some degree. They have either been catastrophic (for example, Chernobyl, Russia in 1986) or damaging (for example, Three-Mile island Pennsylvania in 1979). Although new safer designs have been proposed, they are largely untested and not full-proof ideas. With the time crunch due to the growing threat of climate change, it is difficult to construct numerous power plants all at once, without sorting these factors out at first. Last but not the least, there lays the risk of proliferation of nuclear weapons by nations. The building of a nuclear reactor requires a nation to import uranium and if they choose, the nation can enrich this uranium to create weapons.

The question of adaptability to climate change:

Nuclear Energy

When it comes to adaptability, the bar seems too high for nuclear energy to clear. Any climatic event can halt the operation of a nuclear plant. Nuclear energy generation uses much more water than the wind or photovoltaic mechanisms. So, how will a plant work in the scenario of droughts or heat waves, which are becoming increasingly common with the advent of climate change? It can't even work as an alternative to other renewable forms of energy as, a constant supply of electricity is required to cool down the reactors, so they will not undergo a core melt.

While the relatively unexplored realm of nuclear sciences gives us the hope of salvation, the practical world rejects it. These factors, therefore, seemingly point towards the fact that the promise of nuclear energy mitigating climate change is a false one. Thus, pursuing a lost cause any further, would only undermine our efforts in other, more yielding alternatives.