Nuclear Energy Dilemma: Balancing Environmental Benefits and Risks

The global climate crisis is putting the planet on the brink of a climate disaster, and the goal of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 is rapidly slipping away. The need for alternatives to pollutive fossil fuels has never been more evident, and nuclear power is one of those alternatives. However, there are many thorny questions: Is nuclear power too dangerous, expensive, or presents too much security risk? The question arises whether storing nuclear waste safely is insurmountable, unfair to future generations, scalable enough to combat climate change, and distracting from investing in safer renewable energy sources.

The debate over whether we need nuclear power is very polarized, with some arguing that nuclear power is vital to the climate solution because it is a low-carbon energy source, like wind and solar, and does not directly produce carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas fueling global warming. Others argue that the dangers of nuclear energy, including meltdowns and the lack of safe disposal of nuclear waste, are simply too grave.

The World Nuclear Association supports nuclear energy as a safe and efficient solution to climate change. However, Greenpeace International’s Mehdi Leman argues that doubling nuclear power’s capacity in 2050 would only reduce emissions by 4%. Nuclear power supplies more than eight times as much energy as it did in the 1970s, with the first grid-connected nuclear power plant operating in the Soviet Union in 1954. As of November 2023, nuclear power provides the world with approximately 10% of its energy needs and has a lifespan of up to 80 years. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicts that total global energy consumption is expected to rise by nearly 50% by 2050, making reducing carbon emissions difficult or impossible without nuclear power.

Nuclear power, a reliable and consistent power source, could potentially hinder climate goals by reducing carbon emissions. In 2021, the Nuclear Energy Institute reported that US nuclear energy prevented over 476 million metric tons of carbon emissions, equivalent to removing over 100 million cars from the road. Persuading the public to accept nuclear power is challenging, particularly with nuclear disasters like Three Mile Island in 1979, Chornobyl in 1986, and Fukushima in 2011. Nuclear power rates are second only to coal in its unpopularity in the U.S., with just 16% of Americans in favour of keeping existing nuclear plants and building new ones. The association of nuclear energy with nuclear weapons has led to people harbouring a bias against nuclear power.

A 2023 Gallup poll found that 55% of American adults strongly or somewhat favour using nuclear energy, possibly tied to Russia’s invasion and occupation of parts of Ukraine. Public opinion towards nuclear energy is influenced by gas prices, with Americans being more open to it when oil prices are high and less open when they are low. European nations are more open, but only up to 2022. Germany shut down its three remaining nuclear reactors in April 2023, ending the nation’s nuclear era that lasted over 60 years. This marks the first European country to ban nuclear energy, following Denmark in 1985, Italy in 1990, and Austria in 1999. Climate activist Greta Thunberg supports keeping nuclear power plants in Germany functional if the alternative is coal. However, nuclear power still has a lot of ground to make up if it wants to become a factor in serving the energy needs of a post-fossil fuel era.

In 2021, 95 nuclear plants went online, while another 98 shut down. Doubling global nuclear power capacity by 2050 would reduce emissions by 4%, but would require 37 new reactors annually. As of November 2023, only 60 reactors are under construction. Proponents of nuclear power are pushing back, with Oliver Stone’s documentary “Nuclear Now” attempting to influence public opinion in its favour. Well-publicized accidents at nuclear power plants like Chornobyl and Three Mile Island have reinforced the idea that nuclear power is too risky to be considered a reliable source of energy. Robert P. Crease, a chair of the department of philosophy at Stony Brook University, wrote in a June 2023 edition of Physics World that “No Oliver Stone movie would be complete without a conspiracy theory,” which in the case of “Nuclear Now” sees oil and coal companies as villains because of their disputable claim that even low levels of radioactive emissions are dangerous. Land use is also important, as addressing the same energy needs with nuclear power would take a little more than 500 square miles, roughly equivalent to the size of Phoenix, Arizona.

Nuclear power is a land-efficient source, using 27 times less land per unit of energy than coal and 34 times less than solar photovoltaic. However, it can be co-used with other activities like farming. The grid is another advantage of nuclear power, as it allows for easy integration into electricity grid systems. This is not possible with renewable energy sources like solar and wind, which require extensive investment and approval from zoning boards and regulators.

Despite these advantages, nuclear plants have recorded only 10 new grid connections a year in the last decade, making scaling up to meet demand in the U.S. impossible. The nuclear industry employs nearly half a million workers, but sceptics argue that this number is exaggerated. Advocates argue that nuclear energy is a net job creator, employing more workers per megawatt of electricity than any other energy source.

The fastest-growing sector in renewable energy is the solar industry, which provided about 4.3 million jobs in 2021, representing more than a third of the worldwide renewable energy workforce. Estimates of deaths attributed to fossil fuels are difficult to pinpoint, but some researchers believe that about one in five deaths globally were attributed to fossil fuels through air pollution alone in 2018. This estimate does not include other fossil fuel-related deaths, such as mining accidents, congenital disabilities, early onset dementia, illness, and displacement.

A 2022 Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health study found that people living near oil or gas operations have a higher chance of dying prematurely while substituting nuclear plants for fossil fuel plants might save millions of lives. Nuclear power is a low-carbon source of energy, but it emits carbon-14, a radioactive isotope. The processes used in all stages of the nuclear power cycle release carbon emissions, which are close to the emissions produced in constructing facilities for renewables like solar and wind power.

However, few studies have been conducted on the carbon emissions produced in the entire lifecycle of a nuclear power plant, from uranium extraction to nuclear waste storage. According to the German Environment Agency (UBA) and the Netherlands-based World Information Service on Energy, nuclear power releases 3.5 times more CO2 per kilowatt-hour than photovoltaic solar panel systems, 13 times more than onshore wind power, and 29 times more than electricity produced by hydropower installations.

Nuclear-generating stations release two-thirds of their energy into the environment, while only a third is used for energy. Producing uranium fuel requires the extraction of waste rock and mill tailings, which have been toxic for centuries. Sceptics also worry about the excessive use of water as a coolant in nuclear plants. Large reactors like those at Diablo Canyon, California, dump about 1.25 billion gallons of water into the ocean daily, which can have serious adverse effects on aquatic life. Additionally, nuclear waste storage poses even more of a problem than water disposal, as radioactive wastes such as uranium mill tailings and spent reactor fuel can remain radioactive and dangerous for millennia.

Greenpeace, an environmental group, has raised concerns about nuclear storage facilities on the verge of saturation, posing a threat to spent fuel that could overheat even in plants without emergency generators. The World Nuclear Waste Report 2019 states that no country has a final disposal site for high-level nuclear waste in operation yet, and most countries have not developed and implemented a functioning waste management strategy for all kinds of nuclear waste.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) claims that there is significant progress in the safe and effective management of radioactive waste, including the development of deep geological repositories. 95% of all existing waste is of low or very low radioactivity, with only 1% being high level. 80 per cent of all solid waste is in safe and sustainable final storage.

Nuclear fuel consists of metal tubes containing small tubes of uranium oxide, which are then gathered into bundles and placed in concrete or steel storage containers designed to last 100 years and withstand hurricanes, floods, and missile attacks. As of April 2023, no deaths or injuries have been reported due to nuclear waste products, and after 40 years, the heat and radioactivity of stored waste will have fallen by more than 99 per cent.

Constructing storage facilities for nuclear waste is well-advanced in Canada, France, Sweden, and Switzerland. Finland has taken the lead in burying nuclear waste deep underground in Onkalo, but it is not expected to receive a government license to operate until 2024. However, getting these storage facilities established has run into significant obstacles. In 1987, Congress authorized a national nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but the repository has never opened due to political reasons. Greenpeace estimates that almost a quarter of a million tons of highly radioactive spent fuel, mostly uranium-238, has accumulated in 14 countries, along with discarded materials from uranium mining and production, totalling almost 2.4 billion tons.

In 2019, 263,000 tons of spent fuel were stored in interim facilities worldwide, indicating a significant amount of radioactive waste waiting for governments to decide its permanent storage location. In 2023, Japan released 1.37 million tons of radioactive waste from the Fukushima Daiichi plant into the sea, with simulations showing no increase in radioactivity beyond three kilometres from the coast. Japan’s plan to dump nuclear waste directly into the Pacific was criticized by environmentalists in 2011, who argued that it poses a direct threat to humans and the environment, as well as fisheries and industries dependent on a clean Pacific. Despite approval from the UN, China announced its intention to cease purchasing any seafood from Japan in August 2023.

Nuclear disasters like Chornobyl and Fukushima remain significant in the minds of those opposing nuclear plants as a potential solution to climate change. The partial meltdown of Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979 remains the worst nuclear accident in the U.S., despite the implementation of new training and protocols. The 1986 Chornobyl meltdown and fire in Ukraine caused mass fatalities from radioactivity, but most experts believe that the Soviet-era plant was in questionable condition and poorly managed. Proponents of nuclear energy argue that once Chornobyl is excluded, no deaths have been caused due to a nuclear power plant failure, attributing the estimated 2,000 deaths in Fukushima to various factors.

The Fukushima disaster led to Japan shutting down almost all of its nuclear plants, causing a loss of 48 gigawatts globally. Nuclear plants pose serious risks due to climate change, rising seas, earthquakes, and toxic leaks. Climate change makes them vulnerable to rising seas, which could submerge more than half the interim waste storage sites in the U.S. The Diablo reactors in California are located only 3 miles from a fault line, which wasn’t detected when they were built.

As storage containers age, toxic leaks pose another risk to nearby populations’ safety. By the end of 2022, the Hanford nuclear site held 56 million gallons of nuclear waste, leaking storage tanks, and contaminated soil. About one-third of the nearly 180 storage tanks are known to be leaking, contaminating the subsurface and threatening the nearby Columbia River.

The growth of nuclear energy has increased the likelihood of the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Countries that claim to construct nuclear plants exclusively for peaceful energy needs may still use imported uranium to create weapons-grade uranium and harvest plutonium from uranium fuel rods to manufacture nuclear weapons. Iran, for example, continues to maintain that its nuclear program is peaceful. Still, the U.S. and Israel strongly suspect that Teheran is secretly engaged in developing the capacity to produce nuclear missiles.

There is also the fear that a nuclear plant might present a tempting target for terrorist threats, cyberattacks, or acts of war. The nuclear facility at Zaporizhzhia has come under fire from both Ukrainian and Russian forces, and it remains at heightened risk for a severe accident and meltdown due to shelling and bombing. As the Chornobyl disaster demonstrated, the spread of radioactivity from a meltdown can reach countries well beyond the borders where a meltdown occurs.

The hazards and risks of nuclear energy, particularly in nations like France, have become a significant issue due to major incidents and the rise of possible accidents. Public pressure has been strong since the Fukushima accidents to reduce nuclear electricity, contributing to the success of the Socialist Party’s promise to reduce reliance on nuclear power in the 2012 elections. Changes in reactor design and operations could result in unforeseen impacts on others, especially during unusual operating conditions or accidents.

Nuclear power is a controversial solution to climate change due to its time and expense. Building and launching a plant takes 15-20 years and costs $30 billion. The energy produced is expected to cost between $112 and $189 per MWh, higher than wind and solar. Most U.S. nuclear plants take over 10 years to build. Energy policy expert Stephen Thomas notes that the cost per kilowatt is currently about $10,000 per kilowatt of capacity. France started a new reactor in 2007 with plans to bring it online in five years, but by 2022, it still wasn’t operating and was five times over budget in 2020. Over the past decade, the World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2019 estimates that the total lifetime cost of building and running a nuclear plant for the entirety of its functional life has increased by 23 per cent compared to solar and wind costs. Nuclear energy may have a more minor role to play than some might argue because we are too far down the emissions path for it to make a noticeable effect on climate change.

Nuclear power faces significant challenges, with around 140 countries aiming for net-zero targets, representing nearly 90% of global emissions. However, there are indications that the energy source is making a comeback. In 2018, Congress passed several bills to innovate the development and implementation of advanced nuclear reactors, such as the introduction of modular reactors (SMRs). These small, mobile reactors can be assembled quickly in a factory and transported to the site of operation. However, these SMRs are designed only to have an output of up to 300 megawatts, a third of the output of current reactors. In theory, it should take 1.5 to 2.5 years to build an SMR, but the reality is quite different. Many companies are also modifying how reactors are cooled, such as using convection and gravity or using a fluoride salt-cooled high-temperature reactor.

The promotion of new designs has been met with scepticism from some, including Stephen Thomas, who believes their promotion is gross arrogance given the failure of larger plants to achieve significant savings or lead to a revolution in nuclear energy. The claims being made for SMRs include cost reduction, shorter construction times, improved safety, no significant technical issues to solve, and nuclear being an essential element to our energy mix. Thomas believes that the fruitless pursuit of SMRs will divert resources away from cheaper options, at least as effective, less risky, and better able to contribute to energy security and environmental goals

In July 2023, the first new nuclear reactor in the U.S. was ready to go into full operation at Plant Vogtle in Georgia, and a second reactor is scheduled to go online by March 2024. Each reactor can generate enough electricity to power half a million homes with an estimated cut of 5 to 10 per cent of the state’s total carbon emissions once both units are fully functional. However, the price tag for the first reactor has risen to $30 billion, more than double its original estimate. In the global market, Russia is the leading supplier of nuclear reactors, with Hungary granting a construction license for two new, Russian-built nuclear reactors in 2022, Turkey inaugurating its first nuclear plant in 2023, and China planning to operate its salt-cooled commercial reactor around 2030. Critics of nuclear power are not impressed, as even these ‘next generation’ reactors have suffered delays and cost overruns in France, the UK, Finland, and China.

Greenpeace predicted new nuclear power technologies as the next big thing for 40 years, but despite public subsidies, the prospect has never materialized. A plan to build a small-scale U.S. nuclear reactor collapsed in November 2023 when prospective customers withdrew. Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems withdrew from the deal, citing insufficient power systems. The deal’s demise also impacted nuclear power advocates who supported smaller, modular designs. NuScale Power plans to build reactors in Romania and power data centres in Pennsylvania and Ohio. When it comes to nuclear energy, there is both substantial promise and significant peril. As world governments consider their current and future energy portfolios, the decisions on the nuclear energy question made now will impact the planet for generations to come.


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