Reactor Realities: Rethinking the Narrative of Nuclear Power

In a world grappling with energy crises and climate change, Thomas Walsh asks why nuclear power is often excluded from the conversation.

This year saw Oppenheimer hit the big screen, Europe in the second year of an energy crunch and a summer of crippling heat. The debate on nuclear power is back. 

Is it worth the risk?

Nuclear fission involves splitting atoms to release heat, converting water into steam and turning a turbine to generate electricity. Nuclear power’s appeal has waxed and waned over its 70-year history. It once promised abundant energy, prosperity, and an opportunity to decouple economic growth from growing carbon emissions. It has also been viewed as epitomising centralised power and a technology too dangerous for humankind. Historic accidents didn’t help.

The UN Economic Commission for Europe has determined that nuclear power is a very-low carbon energy source with less material requirement than wind and solar power, the lowest land-use of any energy source and the smallest impact on ecosystems.

Chernobyl and Fukushima were two of the most notable nuclear disasters. The WHO’s findings show that Chernobyl resulted in 134 cases of acute radiation sickness and many more thyroid cancers. Fukushima yielded no cases of radiation sickness, yet displaced communities suffered trauma and long-term psychological difficulties in both cases. These incidents were deemed unacceptable. Some countries, namely Germany, opted to abandon nuclear power, others believe that these accidents sparked major advances in nuclear safety that the industry has become drama-free, even boringly safe.

Nuclear waste is another polarising issue, with the release of Fukushima wastewater prompting protests in Seoul and a Chinese ban on seafood imports. The International Atomic Energy Agency has found, however, that the wastewater contains less than a seventh of the tritium levels (a radioactive isotope) that can be safely found in drinking water. 

No energy source is flawless. Fossil fuels cause deadly air pollution, a hydropower accident claimed 26,000 lives in China in 1975, and rare but fatal accidents occur when erecting wind turbines. Nuclear has resulted in just 0.03 deaths per terawatt-hour of electricity, the annual consumption of 150,000 people. Its safety record is on par with wind and solar energies and safer than hydropower. Meanwhile, the risks of fossil energy eclipse all, with 25 deaths per terawatt-hour, before accounting for climate change induced harms.

No energy source is flawless. Fossil fuels cause deadly air pollution, a hydropower accident claimed 26,000 lives in China in 1975 and rare but fatal accidents occur when erecting wind turbines at sea.

Emerging nuclear designs offer unprecedented safety. Opting for hot liquid salt instead of the usual solid fuel, Molten Salt Reactors (MSRs) self-regulate: overheated salt expands, naturally slowing down the reaction. These reactors run at reduced pressures, curbing explosion threats. Moreover, the salt's non-reactivity with air and water mitigates almost all risk of radiation leakage, even under extreme circumstances. The promise is big, but the challenge lies in scaling a nascent technology amidst urgent emission cuts.

France once rapidly decarbonized its electricity by embracing nuclear power. Sweden and Switzerland emulated this with a blend of hydropower and nuclear power. Germany opted instead to decommission all its nuclear plants and champion wind and solar power, and the Merkel government was credited with spurring a global drop in the solar panel prices. While Germany has been gradually reducing emissions, renewables have mostly replaced retired nuclear capacity, rather than displacing fossil fuels. Consequently, Germany only derives a quarter of its energy from low-carbon sources,, whereas half of France’s energy is low-carbon. The average German now emits nearly twice the carbon as their French neighbour, who enjoys cheaper energy.

The low-carbon nuclear power retired in Germany in 2023 was about as much as Ireland obtains from wind energy on a windy day. That’s 15 years of progress in Ireland, negated overnight.

A future for fission?

80% of the world’s energy is currently derived from coal, gas and oil. Nuclear power has historically produced enough low-carbon electricity to offset two years of global energy emissions and supplies 20% of EU electricity today. As the world aspires to quickly transition off fossil-fuels, maintaining existing nuclear capacity is starting to look like a no-brainer. 

The conversation is pivoting to whether nuclear can be deployed fast enough to help mitigate climate change. Construction of Finland's Olkiluoto 3 (OL3) began in 2005 and completion was expected 4 years later. It came online this year. Meanwhile, the UK's 2008 promise of a new reactor "well before 2020" remains unfulfilled with Hinkley Point C still 4 years out. Wind and solar projects are constructed swiftly but can also face lengthy delays in obtaining grid connection, especially in remote areas or offshore. 

With the average reactor's build-time at 7.5 years, enthusiasm for nuclear power is surging. The Finnish Green Party became the first to adopt a pro-nuclear position, and even Greenpeace Finland has ceased its objections. The UK, ambitious about renewables, acknowledges the need for variety: from pumped storage hydropower and biofuel plants with carbon-capture, to refurbishing old nuclear and building new reactors. Nuclear is planned to meet a quarter of its power needs before 2050. Poland is betting on nuclear as a direct substitute for coal, with minimal need for grid upgrades. 57 reactors are under construction worldwide, 100 have been ordered and 300 more have been proposed. 

Sweden showcases a generational shift. Expecting its electricity demand to double within 20 years, it eyes an expansion of both renewables and nuclear. The move was announced by the new 26-year-old climate minister, Romina Pourmokhtari. Meanwhile, school-striker Ia Anstoot is challenging Greenpeace to drop its legal challenge against the EU’s classification of nuclear as green.

Nuclear for Ireland?

The government has committed to 80% renewables by 2030, while meeting extra demand for electric vehicles, heat-pumps and data centres. Wind will be the biggest power source, complemented by solar. Natural gas will meet the remainder of electricity demand.

If this target is realised, Ireland doesn’t yet know how it will decarbonise the remaining 20% of electricity. Large hydro and geothermal power aren't viable for geographic reasons. Power Generation Engineer, Denis Duff, in conversation with The Observer recognises the progress made in renewables over the last 15 years, but that ‘Together is stronger!’, meaning a mix of nuclear and renewables could be cheaper and lower emissions faster than renewables alone. Mr Duff fears Ireland may find itself locked into coal and gas long after 2030, but that nuclear could ‘eliminate the last 25% of emissions’ from the Irish power sector.

Ireland once planned a nuclear plant at Carnsore Point but due to public dissent, opted for a coal plant at Moneypoint instead. As circumstances have changed, so has public opinion. An Ireland Thinks poll found that the country was split on whether to build nuclear power. Notably, 60% of respondents aged 18-to-24 supported building a reactor. 

Scepticism toward nuclear power also stems from Ireland’s poor track record on infrastructure projects. Nonetheless, the nuclear industry is gearing up to produce downsized and modularized reactors that can be mass produced. The catch? This is another decade away, however small modular reactors would suit smaller grids like Ireland and simplify deployment. 

Engineering student, Clodagh Parkinson, is disheartened to see the government disregard Engineers Ireland’s advice to consider small modular reactors. As a future engineer who will be trusted with building the grid, she would like to see the government follow evidence and expert opinion.

Will Ireland pursue nuclear power? As Minister for Energy in 2007, Eamon Ryan, stated, Ireland needs to have the debate, in public, if only to rule it out.