In Sweden, nuclear facilities such as the Ringhals Nuclear Power Plant currently generate 40% of electricity. Since the 1980s, different governments have called for more nuclear or shut plants down, as is the cast in 2021. © M. Smith
You would likely respond in one out of two ways: either demand that we start using this energy source right away or suggest that I see my doctor for sanity checks.
But such an energy source does exist and has been serving communities across the world since the 1950s. I am referring to the process boiling of water by splitting atoms; in other words, nuclear power.
Admittedly, no energy source is as contentious, controversial, or polarising as nuclear; societal conflicts about whether to use it dominated much of the 1970s and 1980s. Indeed, it went through some rather impressive volte faces, from being heralded as the undisputed symbol of a brighter tomorrow to epitomising the ills of modernity. After two high-profile accidents, an uneasy agreement seemed to be reached to gradually phase out nuclear as reactors reached the end of their projected lifespans.
As climate change emerged on the international agenda in the 1990s, nuclear advocates cautiously began raising their heads above the parapet, suggesting that the low-carbon credentials of nuclear reactors would make them invaluable tools in the fight to drastically reduce emissions. But fast-forward some 30 years: nuclear power is still struggling to capture the public imagination and seems unable to generate enough support from policymakers to exploit its great potential.
“Why do we even need nuclear power when we have renewables?” you might ask – a very valid question! Indeed, political discourse on resolving climate change is mostly fixated on the notion of being able to decarbonise the global society using renewables. The recent Net Zero by 2050 report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) calls for a massive expansion of mostly solar and wind, with renewables making up 90% of all energy by 2050. So far, so good, right?
The 100% renewables ‘myth’
The stark reality is, however, far dirtier than the vision we are being offered to behold through policymakers’ rose-tinted glasses. Despite trillions of dollars invested into renewables over the past decades, the world’s energy mix remains as dependent on fossil fuels . Indeed, considerable modelling consistently suggests that a 100% renewables future – within the 2050 timeframe required to avoid the worst effects of climate change – is simply impossible.
A lot of this stems from the fact that the sun sets every day, and the wind does not always blow. Solar panels generate electricity only 20-25% of the time; wind turbines fare somewhat better at 35%. When they are not generating, the shortfall needs to be compensated by backup systems, which tend to be dirty and/or costly exist. In reality, power plants burning fossil gas are often called upon have to fill in the (many) gaps — and some of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies are positioning themselves and their fossil gas as the ‘natural partners to renewables’. To date, batteries on a scale big enough to power modern societies for days or weeks at a time simply do not exist.
Globally, electricity demand is projected to increase by 57% by 2050. Meeting that demand exclusively through renewables and storage systems would be a major challenge. @ Ashraf Chemban
But with the expansion of renewables, we have seen electricity systems in some parts of the world become less reliable and less affordable, while largely being as polluting as before. Given the urgent need to reduce emissions, increasing reliance on gas is unacceptable.
And yet, that is the situation we face in autumn of 2021; with generation from renewables low and energy demand recovering as economies emerge from COVID-19 shutdowns, fossil gas is in high demand globally – and prices are soaring!
In a context of increased electrification, particularly for home services such a heating, as high gas prices translate into high electricity prices, the risk of people falling into fuel poverty is a considerable problem in many developed countries. And the empirical evidence is worrying, with early movers in the clean energy transition, such as Germany and California, having electricity prices far above other (EU) states. The combination of supply instability caused by weather fluctuations, the cost of fossil fuel backups, and (in)direct subsidies for renewables, threaten to further exacerbate fuel poverty – and there is little to suggest that this picture might change any time soon.
The notion of a transition to a 100% renewables society also exposes the vast inequalities that exist globally. Much of the wealth that has been built in the developed world has been fuelled by fossil energy. With this wealth, some countries might be able to afford sub-optimal solutions to decarbonisation and, if that fails, be able to cover the cost of adaptation to the effects of climate change. We too often forget that full decarbonisation of today’s global economy – challenging as that will be – is not the full picture.
Worldwide, some 770 million people live without even rudimentary access to electricity, and the vast majority are not even remotely close to having the same quantity or quality of electricity as those in developed countries. They want reliable electricity and a lot of it, and no one has the right to deny them that. Renewables can play an important role in providing at least rudimental access to electricity. However, they will have to be coupled with low-carbon electricity that is available around the clock – either hydro or nuclear – or countries will fill the gaps with fossil energy sources.
The importance of nuclear power
We have a golden opportunity to build a more equitable society in addressing climate change, but we must safeguard against the risk that the response simply replaces one crisis with another one further down the line, by allowing perceptions to result in policies that are socially and economically regressive. The perception argument goes two ways: we must be wary of unconditionally accepting the promises of renewables and of the consequences of foreclosing on nuclear power.
Nuclear power’s unique attributes make it a crucial tool for achieving a just energy transition. Nuclear reactors can last for 80+ years and are capable of running around the clock, come sun or rain. The electricity nuclear produces is affordable and sustainable: fuel equivalent to a soda can is enough to provide a lifetime supply of electricity at a Western standard of living. And nuclear reactors can be deployed virtually everywhere.
Often forgotten is the fact that nuclear power helped France and Sweden to decarbonise their electricity supplies in the 1970s and 1980s, at the speed required, while also delivering immense economic growth and prosperity. In many ways, nuclear energy’s potential role in ensuring that the transition to a low-carbon energy system is delivered in a just manner has been largely overlooked, largely owing to its polarising nature. Nuclear power’s partially tainted reputation stems primarily from concerns regarding accidents and waste.
Perception versus reality
The prospects of nuclear accidents can be scary, and popular culture (think HBO’s Chernobyl adaptation) has played a major role in shaping public perception of what these accidents *should* look like and their consequences. Across the 70-year history of nuclear, there have been only three major accidents: Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima Daiichi (2011).
Since the accident at Chernobyl in 1986, substantial effort and cost has gone into containing the radioactive material still found in Reactor 4. @ EBRD
Despite headlines proclaiming death tolls being many hundreds of thousands, the evidence is very clear: nuclear power is – by far – the safest energy source at our disposal. Three Mile Island and Fukushima will almost certainly never result in any radiation-induced illness or fatalities. Chernobyl, being as close to a worst-case scenario as likely possible, has to date resulted in approximately 50 fatalities and some 5 000 cancer cases (of which 15 subsequently died).
Yes, nuclear power is associated with some risks, like every other energy source. And yes, if not handled properly, it might pose a danger to humans and the environment, just like every other energy source. Ruling out nuclear power on these grounds deprives communities of affordable electricity, while also triggering increased use of coal and fossil gas – the pollution from especially coal is known to responsible for millions of premature fatalities every year
CHANGCHUN, CHINA – OCTOBER 21: (CHINA OUT) A woman and her son wearing masks walk along a road as heavy smog engulfs the city on October 21, 2013 in Changchun, China. Expressways, schools and an airport remain closed as heavy smog continues to disrupt northeast China. (Photo by VCG/Getty Images)
Similarly, waste is an inevitable consequence of energy production, as is the case for nuclear power. Nuclear waste is often cited (second only to accidents) as a major concern amongst the general public. Given the portrayal of nuclear waste in popular culture (think glowing rods in the Simpsons or barrels leaking green goo) and in the media (headlines such as Keep out for 100,000 years [Financial Times, 14 July 2016]), such perceptions are perhaps not too surprising.
Existing nuclear waste solutions, like those developed by Holtec, provide robust structural enclosures designed to easily withstand high-velocity winds, tornadoes, high-energy lightening and other natural phenomena. Credit: Holtec
Again, the reality of nuclear waste differs vastly. Yes, when removed from a reactor, the waste is incredibly hot and very radioactive – so no hugging allowed! But this decreases rather quickly. More important for people to understand is the fact the volume of waste is small. Remember the soda can of fuel that will power your entire lifetime? That is also the amount of waste being generated per person. Since the 1950s, the global stockpile of nuclear reactor waste amounts to less than 450 000 tonnes, which has been managed meticulously. By comparison, coal-fired power plants in the US alone generate almost 100 million tonnes of toxic ash every year. By 2050, we will have more than 50 million tonnes of solar panels (often containing toxic and carcinogenic materials) to deal with. At the moment, many panels are dumped as electronic waste in poor countries. Perhaps paradoxically, such comparisons make its waste a strength for nuclear power.
But perceptions matter. In a world riddled with misinformation, half-truths and fake news, they become even more important.
Faced with high pollution levels from coal-fired generation, citizens in Taiwan voted in favour of adding more nuclear to the electricity mix
With evidence that climate change is accelerating, we face one of the – if not the – greatest challenges humanity has ever encountered. In responding, we must dare not only to challenge our own perceptions but also to think outside the box. The undercurrents in the response to climate change betray an intellectual inheritance of ‘less is more’. Whilst being a fan of minimalism having grown up in Sweden, when it comes to energy, this inheritance becomes problematic. It should not be a question of cutting western standards, but rather findings ways to bring everyone else to sufficient, affordable levels, in a sustainable fashion.
Calling for a reversal of the immense progress made in the name of the climate emergency is a retrograde step. Indeed, it would be morally repugnant for those of us who enjoy high-powered lifestyles to deny the rest of the world that right and privilege. To deliver this, we will need more electricity – a lot more! Lighting a bulb is the easy bit, and we need to go a lot further. Having access to clean, reliable, and affordable electricity is a human right, and nuclear power will have a crucial role to play in making this happen.