An Atomic Solution to the Energy Crisis
Increasing pressure from governments to reach net-zero carbon emissions within the coming decades combined with the electrification of transport and industrial sectors make it unlikely that wind and solar power can meet these increasing demands. That leads onto the question of whether the disadvantages and supposed risks of nuclear power truly justify an abandonment and scaling down of such projects.
Firstly, it is important to highlight the adverse effects that scaremongering and hence government policy changes have had in different areas. Following the Japanese Fukushima Daiichi power plant disaster after the 2011 tsunami, there was a surge in anti-nuclear pressure and the Japanese government closed the entire nuclear industry of the country. This preceded Angela Merkel’s decision to accelerate the scaling back of nuclear energy programs in Germany – which will undoubtedly hinder decarbonization efforts. In a paper by Neidell, Uchida and Veronesi, the implications of this decision were investigated, and it was found that energy prices rose by 38 per cent in some regions by January the following year and the increase in mortality attributed to this reached 4,500 people. This figure is greater than the 1,232 that died directly from the meltdown- with only one person dying from radiation exposure.
Beyond dependency on nuclear power, it is difficult to argue that the cost of cleaning up facilities justifies plant closures because for the UK, 75 per cent of decommissioning costs comes from the experimental and military plants built in Cumbria and Sellafield in the 1940s. The lack of future consideration when these plants were built contrasts current projects, where for instance, EDF’s Hinkley Point Plant in Somerset will have a sinking fund absorbing 3 per cent of revenues. If anything, this estimate for dismantling costs has a margin of safety (at £2-3 per MWh) considering the US sinking funds collect $1-2 per MWh and still have enough to cover two-thirds of the sum needed to decommission all plants over the next two to three decades.
Then there is the concern surrounding nuclear waste, considering that the radioactive isotopes left from the nuclear fission reactions need to be stored, typically below ground. As investigated in the Biosphere Assessment Report in 2009, the annual radiation dose on someone who would have their food and water coming from the most contaminated land plot near a radioactive waste site would be the same as eating two bananas.
With nuclear power being one of the few reliable sources of zero-carbon energy, plus modern techniques mitigating decommissioning costs and storage of radioactive waste being a manageable risk, this technology offers great advantages if involved in the future energy mix.
This is especially true for Europe, where places like Poland rely on coal for 80 per cent of their energy. A project led by Michal Solowow (Poland’s richest man) and GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy to build a smaller scale reactor that is expected to be 60 per cent cheaper (per unit) compared with traditional reactors offers great hope for Poland. Having said this, the uncertainty surrounding nuclear plant project execution has frustrated governments, as demonstrated by EDF’s situation in France, where the Flamanville plant delays have caused Macron to pressure EDF to analyse their apparent inefficiencies. Costs ballooned to a total of 12.4bn EUR from an initial 3bn EUR and construction will now last for 15 instead of 4.5 years. France’s reliance on nuclear energy is planned to fall from its current 72 per cent to 50 per cent in the future.
Other setbacks to this supposedly promising source of energy include the scientific uncertainties surrounding the disposal of nuclear waste as discussed in the recent “World Nuclear Waste Report 2019”. Furthermore, most countries lack the large reserves of the uranium needed to fuel this technology. More importantly, even though heat generation does not directly produce CO2, combining uranium mining, fuel enrichment, construction of the plant and the waste stream, it is estimated that indirect carbon emissions are 10-18 times that of renewables. Despite these downsides, it is difficult to visualise an effective shift to lower carbon-emission technologies in the near future without nuclear energy.