Is nuclear power the answer to climate change?

The recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, revealed that in twelve years global temperatures will reach a point that will be irreversible, even with any future environmental policy changes. With this alarming news more people have been making efforts to reduce their carbon footprint and more politicians have been working on developing policies that will help the world to go on in a more sustainable way. Many of the traditional sources of energy, such as gas and coal, release high levels of CO2, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. One of the considered solutions for alternative sources of energy is nuclear power. Nuclear power emits the lowest amount of greenhouse gasses. However, the risks associated with nuclear energy are seen by some as being too high to make nuclear energy the best solution.

The use of nuclear power avoids the emission of nearly two billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, which is reportedly the same effect that would be achieved by taking over 400 million cars off the road each year. The 2016 Paris Agreement, signed by 175 countries with the aim of reducing the rise of global temperatures to two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial era temperatures, mentions nuclear power as an alternative energy source upon which governments would like to rely on more in the future. However, some countries have been turning away from nuclear power. Germany previously expressed the ambition to have its radioactive energy source replaced by renewable sources of energy. Renewable energy today account for 30% of Germany’s power sources, but its carbon footprint has gone up from 761.0 million tonnes of CO2 in 2011, to 763.8 million tonnes of CO2 following a six year period, according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy, published in June 2018. Meanwhile, countries like France, where nuclear power accounts for about 75% of its electricity, appear to have a much lower carbon footprint. In 2017, France’s emissions accounted for 320 million tonnes of CO2, less than half than that of Germany. This makes it clear that the use of nuclear energy could relatively quickly and drastically reduce the global carbon footprint.

The use of nuclear power avoids the emission of nearly two billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each year

Nuclear power plants require large sums of money to be built. It has long been believed that the costs arising from building new nuclear power plants can be justified by the benefits arising from the plant after it is constructed, and the fact that operating the plant was considered to be a cheap undertaking that was going to pay off in the future. However, a Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) report suggests that operating nuclear plants is actually rather unprofitable, so much so that a few nuclear plants have had to close down because of their cost inefficiency and there are several others that are predicted to shut down for the same reason in the near future.

Risks of accidents may be low, but carry significant consequences and are also very expensive to clean up, if cleaning up is even possible. Historical precedents of accidents associated with nuclear plants raise justifiable concerns among the general world population. In 2011, a nuclear plant in Fukushima leaked radioactive material into its surroundings as a result of an earthquake followed by a tsunami. Somewhat similarly in Chernobyl in 1986, a design flaw in a nuclear reactor and a mistake made by one of the plant operators resulted in major radiation leaks into the atmosphere, going outside of the initial site of the disaster and affecting much of northern Europe. While risks are generally considered to be low, the inability to guarantee that there won’t be an unforeseen accident that could result in a leak, leaves many feeling uneasy about the prospect of more plants appearing close to their homes.

Another important environmental concern is the issue of nuclear waste and where to store it. Nuclear waste from power plants is relatively small but highly toxic and dangerous if mishandled. Nuclear waste decomposes naturally, but the length of time required for the process to finish depends on the type of radioactive isotopes used. It needs to be isolated for long periods of time before it ceases to be hazardous, which is why it is often buried deep underground or underwater. Disposing of waste is not easy and people have their reservations about living next to such hazards. The UK has utilised nuclear power for 70 years, however, they do not have a single disposal site agreed upon, despite its efforts to entice local communities with financial compensation.

Historical precedents of accidents associated with nuclear plants raise justifiable concerns among the general world population

Even if used more widely, nuclear power will probably not help reduce the global carbon footprint by sufficient amounts alone. Nuclear power is effective when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the power sector, but “the energy system is bigger than just electricity” noted Sam Ori, the Executive Director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago. Industries like agriculture and manufacturing, which are also responsible for significant amounts of global greenhouse emissions, would require separate solutions and would not be helped by nuclear energy as easily.

While it is clear that there are numerous issues with nuclear power as an energy source, it is important to note that the current state of climate affairs does not allow for much time to reflect on better alternatives. However, the risks and problems associated with nuclear power should not be dismissed, and better alternatives can still be considered simultaneously. Relying on nuclear power sources, in conjunction with policies that aid in regulating emissions from industrial and agricultural sectors could in fact provide necessary relief in the short-term. At this stage, there is a desperate need for the implementation of sound drastic environmental policies, which would benefit from the inclusion of nuclear power. This would also allow for time to work out better alternatives or nuclear management solutions in the long run.