A Case for Nuclear: Bridging the Route to Renewables with Low-Carbon Energy

Evidence-Based Policy is Bigger than You or Your Feelings — Part III

They say that cracking prejudice is harder than cracking atoms. This aphorism is even more true if said prejudice is about cracking atoms. Globally, a mere 38% of people approve of nuclear energy, even lower than the 48% which for some reason or another support coal for energy generation. Contrast that with the whopping 97% (solar) and 93% (wind) approval for renewable energies. Green is cool (at least as a concept). And even though the energy mix in nearly all countries is far from these professed preferences, renewables are heavily subsidized and therefore on the rise, battling and slowly replacing dirty energy sources such as coal, oil or natural gas. As they should. Yet for some reason, nuclear energy is oftentimes included in said dirty energy sources. Not only does this contribute to its low approval ratings, it paves the way to remove nuclear from the energy mix altogether. And if you care about the environment, that’s about the last thing you should do right now.

Nuclear is an efficient & low-carbon energy source

Splitting an atom such as Uranium-235, the isotope most commonly used in nuclear reactors, releases tremendous amounts of energy which can be harnessed in the form of electricity. In the US, the close to 100 remaining nuclear reactors still provide around 20% of the country’s electricity output. Even more important than this number and contrary to the attempt to lump nuclear together with coal & gas is the fact that the provided energy is clean low-carbon energy. In fact, nuclear still accounts for more than half of all low-carbon energy in the US, as the employed nuclear chain reaction itself doesn’t cause CO2 emissions.

A) 2017 US energy mix (consumption) in percent. B) Relative proportion of low-carbon energy sources for the 2017 US energy mix (consumption). Source

And there are more arguments to be made in favor of nuclear energy. Uranium, with its extreme energy density, is needed in far lower amounts than coal or natural gas. Consequently, the mining footprint of uranium is minuscule in comparison to gigantic coal pits which deface and pollute the landscape or sinking tankers spilling oil into precious biotopes. Nuclear power plants need a mere fraction of the steel and concrete required for the same energy output from solar or wind. As a corollary, nuclear energy also occupies significantly less space / land than renewables (several hundred times less in fact). But this is not a war of nuclear vs. renewables. If anything, renewables and nuclear should be team players, two paragons of purity in a world still very much in the grip of carbon-based energy generation. Because, at least in the US, nuclear and renewables together don’t even make up a third of the provided electricity with the rest stemming from coal, oil & natural gas.

Due to popular opinion & misguided intentions nuclear is currently on the retreat

So given the previous statement regarding the dominance of coal & natural gas in our energy mix, you would think that the top priority of citizens, activists and governments is to expand renewables at the expense of coal, oil & natural gas. Yet amazingly the ire of environmentalists is, at least to a large portion, directed against nuclear energy as well. Despite their proclamations of climate change as an existential risk (to which I would certainly subscribe), activists are willing to sacrifice low-carbon energy production in the form of nuclear energy. Because this is what happens, time and again. As people won’t magically start using less energy, once a nuclear reactor ‘retires’ the energy it produced now has to be produced another way. And this way, unfortunately, nearly always happens to be an increase in natural gas utilization rather than renewables, thereby increasing CO2 emissions.

Incidences such as the 2012 San Onofre nuclear plant closure in California demonstrate this quite well. As is so often the case, this closure increased the proportion of energy derived from natural gas and estimates put these additional emissions on the order of two million additional cars on the road. This general effect is so drastic that globally, the inexorable march of renewables notwithstanding, between the 90s and 2014 the share of low-carbon-derived electricity fell a few percentage points. At least in large parts this was due to the closure of nuclear plants in various countries at the behest of environmentalist groups. Now don’t get me wrong here. I’m not in favor of building more nuclear power plants (at least not the current forms of nuclear plants). I’m just saying we shouldn’t close the ones we have if we truly care about emissions and the environment. The order of replacement by renewables should be coal → natural gas → nuclear. Currently, we’re basically going in the opposite direction.

Let’s say you don’t care about the environment but only about your electricity bill. There are economic arguments which are directed against nuclear power, among which are jabs against the enormous long-term investment that nuclear power plants represent (several billion US$ per unit). The construction of a power plant takes years and is often beset by delays. And then, once it’s finally running, a nuclear reactor is basically permanently producing electricity. This doesn’t play very well with renewables which deliver highly variable energy (think for instance solar which only really delivers during the day or hydro which is crippled by drought) and would need a flexible counterpart which can compensate during downtimes. That’s one reason why natural gas is replacing nuclear, as it’s inherently flexible and accommodates the rhythm of renewables. Additionally, due to new fracking technologies, it’s unfortunately really cheap.

We can easily circumvent the first argument regarding long-term investments by restating that the debate is not about building new nuclear power plants but to retain the remaining ones for as long as possible. The second argument, regarding the lacking flexibility of nuclear-derived electricity, can be addressed by two points. First, technologies such as the one installed at the Goesgen plant in Switzerland allow the regulation of the nuclear reactor output by up to 50% (at 30 megawatts per minute), thereby drastically increasing the flexibility of nuclear power. Second, the development of efficient batteries to store energy would not only help nuclear energy stay competitive but also alleviate the variable nature of renewables. And finally, regarding the cost factor one has to keep in mind the incredible amounts of subsidies that renewables receive and that are responsible for their comparatively low-cost electricity. So if there is real political will to decarbonize, one could envision some level of subsidies for nuclear as well to disincentivize the usage of coal & natural gas.

Nuclear is a lot safer than you might think

Of course we have to approach the elephant in the room when discussing nuclear energy: safety. Often cited as an argument by environmentalists, safety concerns are one reason why the same activists who regard climate change as an existential crisis paradoxically also view nuclear power plants as an existential threat. The fundamental error here of course is to equate nuclear energy with nuclear bombs. While the latter are certainly able to flatten whole cities and make a wide swath of surrounding area uninhabitable through deadly radiation, nuclear power plants can’t and don’t do that. First, let’s observe that there have been exactly three major reactor incidents in an accumulated ~17 000 reactor-years from nuclear reactors in over 30 countries.

In two of these incidents, Three Mile Island and Fukushima Daiichi, not a single person died from immediate radiation while there has been one cancer death attributed to the Fukushima meltdown. Consider instead the close to 16 000 deaths from the tsunami that caused the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi reactor in the first place. The worst reactor incident in history, the 1986 Chernobyl reactor meltdown, killed 31 people directly and (until 2011) 15 people from ensuing cancers. The most common radiation-induced cancer, thyroid cancer, is fortunately treatable if diagnosed early (and of course areas with known radiation exposure are screened heavily). In contrast, up to 1 000 000 people die every year from coal-related air pollution (plus many people that die in mines every year). In fact, every single energy-generating modality has a higher death rate per terawatt hour than nuclear except maybe for hydro (if you’re curious, people fall from roofs and die when installing solar panels, driving up that death rate).

Safety of energy sources in deaths per terawatt hour (globally, 2011). One terawatt hour is equivalent to one trillion watts. Source

Nuclear reactors can’t explode like bombs when they melt down. Radiation emitted to the outside world during a meltdown is also drastically lowered by the remaining reactor architecture. Consider the triple meltdown of Fukushima Daiichi which failed to lethally affect the more than 200 helpers that continued to work on site to mitigate damages. Government studies have found that current nuclear reactor designs would withstand a head-on collision with a fully-fuelled Boeing 767–400, demonstrating not only the robustness of nuclear reactors but also discarding the trite argument of nuclear reactors as an existential threat or target for terrorists. In fact, there is hardly any civil structure which is better fortified than nuclear reactors.

Lastly, I’ll readily admit that storing nuclear waste is an issue, especially considering how long it remains radioactive. Yet there are approaches to address this. One step is the utilization of nuclear warheads as fuel for reactors. Next to the desirable decrease of the nuclear arsenal, this reduces the radioactive footprint by using up already radioactive ‘military waste’ as input. Another way to get more energy without producing more nuclear waste in the process is nuclear recycling where you use the nuclear waste of one type of reactor to power another type of nuclear reactor to extract more energy from the same amount of material. Last but not least, future reactors running on thorium instead of uranium would remedy the situation as well. Thorium is about 500 times more abundant than uranium-235, thorium reactors would be safer in operation and its nuclear waste is radioactive for only about one thousandth of the time of conventional nuclear waste.

Nuclear is a low-carbon energy source but is regulated as if it were a ‘dirty’ energy source. Nuclear is one the safest sources of energy we currently have, yet it’s regulated as if it were one of the most dangerous. There is a common theme here. The debate around nuclear energy is mostly fueled by arguments motivated by ideology rather than evidence. And yet, we’re losing the battle. More and more nuclear plants shut their doors without new reactors being built. Three Mile Island, weathering its meltdown in 1979, now faces being pushed out by cheap natural gas. Cheap natural gas which will continue to drive up the dire effects of climate change on us all and our children. If you don’t like nuclear power, fine. There may come a time when we can shut down the last reactor and replace it with renewables. But this time is not today. If you care about our climate & environment, you should care about nuclear and what replaces it.

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