Ten Reasons to Feel Positive about Nuclear Energy

I have been participating in the public debate around nuclear for years. I have also been following up on the various arguments used in the discussion. Are these arguments based on scientific evidence or reports published by various organizations under the United Nations, for example? Sadly, not many of them are. There is a vast difference between the public debate and what the research says.

Nuclear energy is probably the most misunderstood form of energy production there is. The discussion on nuclear is broken, and has been for years, even decades.

I will be writing short and – one hopes – easily readable – articles about nuclear energy in Fennonen. They are my attempt to try and fix the discussion we are having about nuclear. To facilitate this, I will add footnotes and citations for all important arguments and statements I make. If you find there is something wrong, missing, or if something needs more explanation, please don’t hesitate to leave some feedback. Ask hard questions, be sceptical. But be also ready to challenge your own prejudices if the evidence suggests it.

To get started, I will briefly list ten good reasons to feeling a bit more positive about nuclear energy.

1.      We need to halt climate change, and nuclear is a proven way to do it

Climate change is arguably one of the defining challenges that humanity is facing this century. The biggest reason the climate is changing so fast is due to human actions on the planet. The single biggest factor, roughly two thirds, is energy production, and the fossil fuels burnt there.

Nuclear is, in addition to hydro power, our most important source of low-carbon energy[i]. Its life-cycle emissions are amongst the lowest, right there with hydro and wind power[ii]. All three of these energy sources have emissions that are roughly a hundredth of those of coal power.

2.      Nuclear power is fast to build

The reactors being built currently are huge projects. It takes years to build them, but when ready, a single reactor will produce very large amounts of energy. So even with the usual delays, the pace of adding low-carbon energy with nuclear is actually quite fast. If we compare the pace with which low-carbon energy has been built on a national scale, per capita, nuclear ends up at the top of the comparison.

3.      Nuclear is safe

Nuclear power is one of the safest ways we have to produce energy. Even counting all the accidents, storing the nuclear waste, radiation and other potential effects, nuclear has caused the least amount of deaths per energy produced[iii]. The current generation of reactors being built now are still much safer than those built back in the 1970s and 1980s.

4.      Nuclear produces baseload power

Our modern society is dependent on continuous supply of energy. On a national level, the consumption of electricity is quite stable, although there are variations on a day/night and summer/winter basis. Nuclear power is ideal in meeting this constant demand, as many well-kept nuclear power plants operate at full capacity over 90 percent of the time.

5.      Nuclear has a small environmental footprint

Nuclear power plants produce large amounts of energy from a rather small area of land. To produce the same amount of energy that a single large reactor produces from harvesting forests here in the boreal zone, it would take millions of hectares of forest to do. Nuclear plants don’t release significant amounts of greenhouse gas emissions or pollution to the environment, and that which is released is monitored constantly so it causes no harm. Uranium is often produced by mining, but as such it is not significantly different from normal mining activities, of which our modern lives are dependent on. Since nuclear energy is very tightly packed (dense) energy, the amount of fuel needed is remarkably small. This means that the footprint of any mining activities remain quite small.

6.      Nuclear power is cleantech at its best

Imagine a technology that uses only a tiny amount of fuel to produce all the energy that a human uses during her entire life. Imagine an industry that collects its waste and sees to its safe containment and disposal. The same industry has also developed technologies that can reuse the dangerous, long-lived waste to make even more clean energy while at the same time cutting the lifetime of that waste to a fraction. The industry is super safe, resource-efficient, and releases no local pollution nor greenhouse gasses. Nuclear is, by any comparison, cleantech at its best.

7.      Nuclear is cost-efficient

Building a nuclear power plant is certainly not cheap. But if you compare it with any other low-carbon energy production, neither is it that expensive[iv]. The plants have long operational lifetimes; plants being built now can operate for a human lifetime, if kept well. During that time, that plant produces enormous amounts of energy, and it does it at a relatively low price. When the plant has been built, the costs for fuel, operation and maintenance are rather small.

8.      Nuclear technology is developing strongly

The reactor technologies we currently use, the two most common being the Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR) and the Boiling Water Reactor (BWR), are only one of the many ways to produce nuclear energy. There has been a big surge in interest in recent years to research and develop new kinds of nuclear reactors.

There are Small Modular Reactors (SMR) where the modules can be built in factories and assembled on site. There are various fast breeder reactors that can use spent nuclear fuel (high level nuclear waste) as their fuel. There are reactors that can produce very high temperatures, reactors with gas or metal cooling. The fuel can be as pebbles, pellets or even mixed in a molten salt. I could go on and on. Nuclear technology is anything but a stagnant technology from yesterday. The future applications of nuclear energy, now mainly used for electricity production, range from industrial and district heat to desalinating seawater or even producing hydrogen.

9.      We are not running out of nuclear fuel

The currently known deposits of uranium can last us about 80 years with current use[v]. This is actually much longer than with many other minerals we are dependent on. Uranium is spread everywhere in smaller or bigger concentrations. There is a vast amount of it even in seawater, although it is in a tiny concentration. When the price of uranium rises, the known reserves increase. At the same time, it becomes more competitive to use the fuel more sparingly, recycle it and build reactors that can use more common isotopes of uranium[vi], spent fuel of other reactors, or even the much more common thorium as their fuel. One ceiling to the price of uranium fuel is set by the costs of separating uranium from seawater[vii], as the oceans have enough uranium to last us for many millennia.

10. Nuclear is essential for us

If humanity wants to halt climate change fast enough, it will require tremendous amounts of clean, low-carbon energy. All of our known ways to produce clean energy have their own bottlenecks and weaknesses in their deployment. Increasing energy efficiency is no different, it suffers from diminishing returns and increasing costs like everything else. The scale of the challenge is immense. We simply cannot leave any tool unused. This is not my personal opinion. You can read the same conclusion from practically any serious, international study or report on the matter. It is a dangerous and reckless gamble with our planet’s future to oppose or even try to ban any single working tool we have available.

[i] Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015 – http://tinyurl.com/lxu3jmj

[ii] Source: IPCC AR5

[iii] Source: Markandya, A., & Wilkinson, P. (2007). Electricity generation and health. The Lancet, 370(9591), 979–990. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(07)61253-7, page 981.

[iv] See for example IEA’s fresh report on the prices of electricity generation in the near future https://www.iea.org/Textbase/npsum/ElecCost2015SUM.pdf

[v] Source: Uranium 2014: Resources, Production and Demand – https://www.oecd-nea.org/ndd/pubs/2014/7209-uranium-2014.pdf

[vi] Meaning the U238 isotope that is 99.3 percent of all uranium, but which is not used as the main fuel in current reactors that use the fissile U235 isotope. This includes the natural uranium, spent nuclear fuel or depleted uranium

[vii] This cost is currently estimated at around 300 USD / kg, which would not have a significant effect on the price of nuclear energy produced.

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