Is nuclear energy the solution to a greener future?
The 2023 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Synthesis Report reveals greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at alarming rates. Whilst many countries have ambitious green agendas and try to find sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels, these efforts still fall short of creating a low-carbon future. In the pursuit of a greener future, the use of nuclear energy as a viable solution remains a hot topic.
Amidst recent developments in energy crises and the worsening of human-driven climate change, nuclear power appears to be experiencing a ‘renaissance‘. However, whilst some countries such as the US and UK have sought to increase the presence of nuclear power in their global energy mix, others such as Germany have continued to phase out the technology entirely.
Valid arguments can be made both for and against the use of nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels. In interviews with Malcolm Keay, Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, and Professor James Marrow, the James Martin Chair in Energy Materials at Oxford University, the two discussed the opportunities, benefits, and challenges of a nuclear energy future. A special focus is given to nuclear energy in the UK.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has stated that many nuclear power plants implement international standards that make them amongst ‘the safest and most secure facilities in the world’. However, it must be noted IAEA safety standards are not mandatory, and many states can adopt these guidelines at their own discretion. Despite modern-day nuclear plants continuing to improve in design and security, debate surrounds the ability of these facilities to defend against dangerous shocks such as terrorist threats, cyberattacks, and warfare.
“There are these risks. But in fact, most nuclear stations or newer designs are guarded against them. The ones with full concrete containment, for instance, would resist this sort of [attack].”
There are inherent risks associated with going nuclear, but other technologies face risks as well, Keay added. Whilst there is always a chance for a catastrophic event to occur, contemporary nuclear facilities greatly minimise this potential. The unfamiliarity of nuclear power makes many people feel less happy to live with it, even though it’s a secure industry.
“These are factors which are relevant to all fields of engineering and are seriously considered by the operators, designers and regulators of all nuclear plants”, Marrow said.
Nuclear energy has been hailed as safer, both for human health and the environment, especially in comparison to fossil fuels. Data on estimated death rates per unit of electricity production show that fossil fuels and biomass account for far more deaths compared to nuclear energy and renewables. The estimated death rate from nuclear energy is considerably low.
In terms of radiation, exposure to high doses from accidents or bombings can produce acute health effects, as well as increase the long-term risks of cancer and other diseases. Radiation experts emphasise that the industry is well regulated and monitored, and exposure to low levels of radiation within the working environment is not a major health risk. Whilst such low doses generally don’t cause immediate health effects, over time they do play a small part in increasing the overall risk of cancer.
“The average coal station probably emits more radiation than the average nuclear station”, Keay said. “It’s not so true of all fossil fuels, and all coals are a little bit different. But by and large, coal stations emit more radiation than nuclear stations.”
Occupational safety in uranium mining is also cited as a cause of concern. However, numerous uranium mining companies have strived to adopt international recommendations and guidelines to ensure worker safety. The modern uranium mining industry has been reported to have a ‘good safety record’, although the risk of health effects from dealing with uranium ore still exists.
“Nuclear, like all forms of energy production, carries risk. There are health hazards in the mining of the [uranium] ore. But the global operation of [nuclear] reactors is extremely safe and well maintained because of the regulations. Safety is taken very seriously.”
With regard to the environment, going nuclear also means lowering the overall carbon footprint, thus helping to address climate change. Despite this, it still creates some adverse impacts on the environment.
“There are no energy sources free of environmental problems. Comparing the overall environmental risks is really quite complicated and depends on how you balance one set of risks against another set of risks.”
Marrow said there is debate on how you count the emissions for nuclear energy. Obtaining uranium, constructing nuclear sites, as well as decommissioning facilities all involve emissions. However, in general, going nuclear is a sustainable option.
Whilst nuclear energy is beneficial in producing a low-carbon future, waste management is also a topic of concern for environmentalists.
Marrow added that waste is much better understood now compared to the early days of nuclear technology in the 1950s and 1960s. The practices of that period were not ideal, but nowadays the treatment of waste is both well understood and managed. However, it is costly as well.
“There are ways of dealing with the waste, such as fast reactors or reprocessing the waste to reduce the lifetime and quantity”, Marrow said. “We have the technologies to deal with it and treat it safely. We have the technology to create waste which doesn’t proliferate.”
Keay added that in the history of the UK, there have been ongoing efforts to build a long-term disposal site. This has been met with its own challenges but waste management overall has not been an enormous problem in practice.
Management schemes continue to develop and improve.
Renewables vs. Nuclear:
Renewable energies are the safest pathway to a green future. This includes solar, wind, tidal, and geothermal, amongst other sources. Opponents of nuclear power often cite the need to invest more in renewables. However, growing energy demands and limitations of renewable energy technologies demonstrate a need for a more diverse, sustainable energy palette.
Renewables are intermittent and cannot always produce energy consistently throughout the day. Environmental or seasonal changes can likewise limit their use or efficiency.
“Renewables are going to be the major part of a low-carbon system. The question is what else is needed to back up the renewables. At the moment, it’s nearly all fossil fuels. Something has to be found to replace that.”
Fossil fuels are a finite source that will eventually run out. Although uranium is also available in a limited amount, reserves are currently enough to last through the twenty-first century. When seeking greener alternatives to fossil fuels, supply and demand must also be kept in mind.
“It’s not a good idea to bet on one horse”, Marrow said. “Solar and wind certainly have huge potential, but our energy needs are massive. Looking ahead towards the end of the century, if you extrapolate population growth and industrialisation, the energy needs that we’re going to require as a globe are huge.”
The demand for energy thus cannot be fully met with just renewables. If the future seeks to be more sustainable, fossil fuels are out of the equation. Nuclear energy is one of the few candidates that remain.
The demand can likewise not be met since renewable energy cannot be efficiently stored. However, there’s also no guarantee that storage will provide the solution.
“Looking ahead at the energy needs towards the back end of the twenty-first century, unless we can sort out storage for solar, we need something else”, Marrow said. “The thing we have that works is nuclear.”
The Future of Nuclear Energy in the UK:
The UK is aiming for net zero by 2050, marking the urgency in energy transition and decarbonisation. It wants nuclear power to provide 25% of the UK’s electricity needs by then, a feat that was almost achieved in the 1990s. In 2022, nuclear power accounted for 13.9% of the electricity supply.
When asked about the future of nuclear power in the UK, Keay said it’s not likely going to be that great.
“The government always is and always has been keen to promote nuclear”, he said. “I don’t think it’s going to have more success in future. To meet its own targets, it would have to be building about one reactor a year and there’s no realistic prospect of that.”
Policymakers also face the problem of system flexibility, he added. Nuclear doesn’t balance renewables very well and politicians must challenge themselves to think in terms of a new low-carbon system that differs from the historic systems we’ve worked with in the past.
The Russo-Ukrainian War, in addition to climate change, has sharpened the focus on energy sustainability and energy security. Developing and maintaining nuclear capabilities are skills that need to be kept up.
“The UK is recognising that we have a skills-based knowledge in nuclear technology, and we will either build that to replace or extend our own plants … but also export”, Marrow said. “There’s a serious interest in exporting the UK’s nuclear expertise around the world.”
The government has been funding competitions for designs and promoting investment in the sector. This year, the UK government launched the Great British Nuclear, a non-departmental public body, to help accelerate a nuclear Britain.
A 2022 survey showed great support for nuclear energy in the UK for electricity generation, with 42% in favour and 12% opposed. The same survey also showed many respondents were neutral or unsure about the use of nuclear energy as a safe source of energy. This demonstrates a need to educate the population on the topic.
Nuclear energy has its own set of drawbacks, including the fact that it’s costly and slow to implement. However, in the efforts to build a more sustainable future, nuclear presents a greener alternative to fossil fuels. Whether this may change in the far future depends on the ability of policymakers to be more imaginative in looking at alternatives. However, for now, nuclear energy continues to be seriously considered as part of a greener and more sustainable global energy mix.