As the world grapples with how to transition rapidly off fossil fuels, there is renewed debate over the potential role nuclear energy has to play in a low-carbon energy supply. This debate is primarily playing out on the national level. Countries like Germany unabashedly disavow nuclear energy and continue to close existing plants, while others like France and China have renewed their commitment to it as part of their climate strategies. The debate is also taking place in the environmental advocacy space, between those who see nuclear as a safe, zero-emissions source of energy and those who view its use as too risky with many drawbacks.
As for the general public, global opposition to nuclear energy stands at around 62% and is as high as 80% in places like Germany and Italy. And while renewable solar and wind energy have experienced stunning price declines in the past decade, nuclear energy has actually gotten more expensive—again due to stricter safety regulations and increasing construction and maintenance costs.
These barriers present a dilemma for the future of the nuclear industry. On the one hand, nuclear power is a relatively safe, low-carbon source of electricity that, unlike renewables, can be used at any time to provide baseload power. On the other hand, it is increasingly uncompetitive with renewable energy, where building new plants is complex and time-consuming, and the industry faces stiff opposition from activists. The question then is how much of a role will nuclear power play in the energy transition? Will its share slowly decrease as plants reach the end of their lifecycle, or will there be renewed investment in the technology that helps modernize existing plants, ushering in a sort of nuclear renaissance?
Nuclear Energy in the 20th Century
Ever since nuclear energy was first used to generate electricity in 1951 in Arco, Idaho, its place in the energy mix has remained a divisive and controversial topic. At the time, nuclear energy was touted as a limitless, futuristic energy source that would power the entire world for generations to come. There was also considerable effort to disassociate nuclear energy from nuclear weapons, which were experiencing a rapid buildup as the Cold War escalated. Then U.S. president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, even delivered a famous speech calling on nations around the world to use nuclear energy, or “Atoms for Peace”, as a power source for the new modern age.
While the nuclear industry remains a staple of the world energy mix today, it never fully lived up to this vision of grandeur. Growing rapidly through the 1950s and 60s, the industry began to slow down in the 1970s as opposition grew, mainly from environmental groups, as did the strictness of the regulations for constructing and operating nuclear plants. Two famous accidents at nuclear power plants exacerbated this slowdown—the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 and the Three Mile Island accident, the former being the worst accident in the industry’s history. These accidents stiffened opposition and scared the public that another accident could happen at any point. Since 2000, the amount of electricity generated by nuclear reactors has remained essentially flat, generating around 10% of electricity worldwide.
Benefits Versus Risks
Electricity generated by nuclear reactors works by creating steam to drive turbines that, in turn, make electricity. The reactors are fueled by uranium, which goes through an enrichment process before turning into fuel known as uranium dioxide. Once the fuel is in the reactor, the tiny atoms containing uranium are split into smaller atoms, creating a nuclear chain reaction of energy and steam that is used to drive the turbine.
As mentioned, this process creates an energy source that does not emit emissions and that can be used virtually at any time. Nuclear energy’s ability to be used at any time sets it apart from other energy sources’ capacity factors (how often an energy source can be utilized). Nuclear energy’s capacity factor sits at around 90%, while solar and wind, which are by their very nature intermittent, sit at an average of 30%. A high capacity factor is undoubtedly one of nuclear energy’s biggest appeals, as it can provide governments with the assurance of being able to generate electricity during periods where other sources might be experiencing shortages.
That being said, nuclear energy does have some drawbacks. The mining of uranium is often dirty and can leave hazardous manufactured tailing ponds containing radioactive material. This has led some jurisdictions in Canada, the world’s biggest uranium producer, to place bans on new mine sites. At the other end, once the uranium inside a reactor has been spent, it must be disposed of and is another major concern brought up by those who are against nuclear energy. While this waste is relatively small in proportion to the amount of generated electricity, it can be highly radioactive and dangerous. However, waste is well regulated and often repurposed, with nuclear advocates claiming that “the volume of radioactive waste is often misunderstood.”
These risks lead to a wider debate around the safety of nuclear energy. Deadly disasters, such as Chernobyl and the 2011 Fukushima meltdown, will certainly be referenced when thinking about safety and risk. While these events were undoubtedly devastating and took the lives of many, what is less thought about is the unseen deaths caused by air pollution from burning fossil fuels. For total deaths, nuclear power is “one of the safest and cleanest energy sources” on Earth relative to how much energy it generates. Still, there will always be an extra risk premium to be factored in, as no matter how unlikely another accident is, its very possibility will give it an outsized influence when deciding to pursue this energy source.
A Necessary Piece of the Climate Puzzle?
While the share of nuclear energy in the world energy mix has remained flat for decades, there are some signs there may be a push to change this. France, the country most reliant on nuclear energy at 70% of electricity generation, recently announced its intention to build six new reactors. China also has 11 plants under construction to add to its existing 47. While environmental reasons were certainly factored into these decisions, so has the issue of energy security, where these countries who are not well endowed with fossil fuels aim to make themselves more independent from imports.
On the environmental side, the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) scenario to get to net-zero emissions by 2050 has “nuclear energy [growing] by 15% between 2020 and 2030.” Sentiment to make this growth a reality has also been echoed in the Netherlands, the U.S., and other countries considering all possible alternatives to fossil fuels.
Still, choosing this route over funding for solar, wind, and other renewables is a political and economic risk. From a purely economic perspective, it is understandable if governments might not want to pursue new nuclear developments. The cost and construction times can almost seem prohibitive, and these projects might not be completed in time to make necessary cuts in emissions that are needed. Politicians that embrace the nuclear strategy are guaranteed to encounter opposition from environmental groups and from the public, who primarily associate nuclear energy with the risks previously mentioned.
Yet, these risks could be worth taking. For the foreseeable future, there will still be a need for electricity when the sun isn’t shining and wind isn’t blowing as energy storage is not yet advanced enough to supplement this intermittency. Nuclear energy’s natural advantage is that it can compensate for these intermittent periods without contributing to emissions like a coal or gas plant would. The situation that Germany has found itself in, where through decommissioning its nuclear energy use only to become more reliant on coal and imported natural gas, is certainly one to be avoided for environmental and energy security reasons.
For those countries with the capacity to build nuclear energy, the question may ultimately come down to political will. As the IEA stresses in its report, the need to ditch fossil fuels is urgent and will require an investment into energy resources beyond traditional renewables. With the demand for energy still rising, supplementing electricity through energy sources that do not emit carbon must be prioritized. Despite its high price tag, nuclear energy may still have a role to play. The recent wave of announcements on its further development could trigger further innovation in the field and the rebirth of the nuclear industry.
Edited by Bethlehem Samson