Rachel Eyles explores some of the untapped potentials behind the taboo of nuclear energy.
With current mitigation efforts falling short, the world will need to go nuclear to combat climate change. The 2015 Paris Agreement set out to “limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels” and representatives from over 180 nations agreed on systematic methods to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change impacts. However, even full implementation of these strategies leads to 3.2°C of warming (range 2.9-3.4°C), well above the 1.5°C goal set in Paris. Rapid and deep decarbonisation is clearly important, but it is clear that current mitigation efforts are inadequate.
In most future climate change scenarios, maintaining the 1.5°C temperature rise will mean that we will need to increase our nuclear power generation well above the current global average of 10%. However, massive variations exist between models and across scenarios due, in part, to societal preferences. According to the World Nuclear Association, 2017 was the fifth consecutive year that nuclear electricity generation increased and as of January 2019, around 60 new reactors are under construction. Despite these numbers, other sources note the global nuclear remission after a rapid expansion in the 1970s and 1980s. Old nuclear plants that need repair have been decommissioned, Germany has prioritised closing nuclear plants instead of coal plants and even France (which currently gets around three-quarters of its electricity from nuclear) plans to significantly reduce reliance on reactors over the next few decades.
Fossil fuels still generate the lion’s share of our power (65% in 2016), their contribution remaining virtually unchanged over the last decade or so (66.5% in 2005). But nuclear power generation produces nearly 150 times fewer greenhouse gas emissions than coal-fired power generation and has prevented approximately 1.84 million air pollution-related deaths. So why haven’t we seen nuclear taking a larger share of power generation to meet the Paris goals? Are fears of another Chernobyl incident still impeding confidence in global nuclear projects? Or is nuclear just too expensive to compete with other sources of energy? Despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of nuclear reactors have functioned safely over their entire lifetimes, major nuclear disasters have burdened development, soured public opinion and dramatically shifted energy policy. After three reactors melted down at Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in 2011, Japan shut down all its plants and abandoned plans for 14 new reactors. After the event, the change in public opinion was dramatic, with 75-80% of Japanese people after the disaster in favour of scrapping all of the country’s reactors. Mistrust in governments and energy corporations was rife and has since resulted in legal challenges for reactor restart.
Like other contentious topics in science, there are correlations between support or belief in the subject and variables such as political view, gender and subject knowledge. A large report conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) aggregated results from public opinion polls and surveys and noted key findings. Data clearly illustrated that countries with nuclear power already in their energy remit had populations more knowledgable and supportive of nuclear power. However, which came first was not clear. A lack of awareness in terms of nuclear’s potential to curb GHG emissions was also an indicator of opposition. Opinions were changed significantly, however, when the benefits of nuclear energy were explained. Stereotypes appear to still dominate the nuclear discussion, despite the fact that other forms of energy may be equally (or more) dangerous. For instance, waste produced by coal plants, in the form of fly ash, delivers approximately 100 times more radiation into the environment than an equivalent nuclear power plant.
Major concerns that reduced public support were related to terrorism, radioactive waste disposal and the misuse of nuclear materials (in that order). With regards to nuclear waste disposal, a lack of suitable repositories has been widely viewed as the major roadblock to further development and a threat to existing plants. The category of waste (high, intermediate, low) determines how wastes are treated and disposed of. For instance, high-level wastes, which constitute just 3% of wastes but contain 95% of the radioactivity, require shielding, cooling and eventual disposal deep underground. Even after more than 50 years of investigations, there are currently no high-level nuclear waste repositories in operation. In contrast, low- and intermediate-level wastes are easily handled and are disposed of in several established repositories. However, opponents of nuclear power highlight that “low level” does not mean “low-risk”, due to factors such as leakage of high-level wastes into low-level wastes through fuel rod cladding. There are claims that tons of nuclear waste are ending up in landfills, and in some cases, recycled into consumer products with varying assertations of safety.
In addition to public acceptance, cost has become a major issue for nuclear technology due to various factors, including increasingly stringent safety requirements. The World Nuclear Association highlights that plants are expensive to construct but relatively cheap to run. In terms of electricity generation, nuclear is said to be cost competitive with other sources, except where there is direct access to low-cost fossil fuels. However, other authorities highlight the well-known rapid declines in renewable costs. In a 2017 report comparing Levelized Cost of Electricity (LCOE), the costs of unsubsidised onshore wind and utility-scale solar were shown to be cheaper than new coal in many parts of the US, and cost-competitive with new combined-cycle natural gas. Mean subsidised LCOE for utility-scale solar fell 72% from 2009 to 2017, whilst costs for nuclear increased by 20%.
Therefore, it is clear that nuclear’s notoriously bad reputation still dominates the energy conversation. Although concerns over nuclear waste, terrorist activity and cost may be warranted, nuclear reactors can provide a steady supply of low-carbon energy. If we are to have any hope of achieving the Paris Agreement goals, the world will need nuclear. The industry is up against several roadblocks, which can only be overcome with transparency, open and informative dialogue with the public and respect for those afflicted by previous disasters.