Is nuclear the answer?
Many environmentalists would like to consign nuclear power to the dustbin of history, but it seems that it's an energy source that just won't go away.
Opposition to nuclear power was at the heart of the green movement of the 1960's and 70's. However the role of carbon emissions in climate change has switched the focus of not just campaigners, but politicians and large sections of the business community, against fossil fuels. Nuclear power has been highlighted by its supporters as a very low carbon emitter, which has given the industry a boost and could hail its renaissance.
The hazardous legacy of nuclear waste and the difficulty of disposing it, added to the catastrophe at Chernobyl meant that many countries lost their appetite for nuclear power. Germany has pledged to phase out all of its nuclear facilities by 2021 because of the potential safety risks, replacing them with renewable power sources
For developing countries nuclear power plants haven't gone out of fashion - China plans to spend $60 billion on new nuclear power plants by the end of the next decade - while France still generates around 70 percent of its electricity from nuclear energy.
As governments look to how they will fuel the future, nuclear power has been trying to clean up its image. There are innovative plans on how to dispose of the highly hazardous waste. A report by the UK's Nuclear Decommissioning Authority said that a portion of nuclear waste could be used as a power source, suggesting the building of a $2 billion fuel processing plant could turn the UK's 60,000 tonnes of nuclear waste into reactor fuel to provide 60 percent of the country's electricity until 2060.
While the plan had the support of the UK government's chief scientist, Sir David King, many environmental groups raised concerns that it would create a "plutonium economy" in the UK and lead to huge quantities of nuclear fuel transported to and across the country.
Nuclear back on the agenda
The UK government has recently given formal backing to plans for a new generation of commercial nuclear power stations, a move that has dismayed many supporters of renewable energies and environmentalists.
While it is agreed that many of the UK's nuclear facilities will need to be replaced by 2018, opinion is divided as to whether new power stations will contribute to filling the predicted energy gap.
One thing that can be agreed is that the public, governments and energy companies across the world are having the face up to the same energy problems. According to the World Energy Council, global energy supplies must double from their 2007 level by 2050 to meet worldwide household energy needs, while reductions in carbon emissions have to be met to stave off the effects of climate change.
Critics of nuclear power have traditionally focussed on the hazards and costly nature of the industry, as well as the catastrophic effects of a nuclear accident and the threat of nuclear proliferation. However as the debate over energy sources become more sophisticated, anti-nuclear activists also point to its other flaws.
"There are two [other] reasons why new nuclear will play no part in ensuring our energy and climate security: cost and time. Nuclear costs too much, the costs are too uncertain and the reactors cannot be available in time," energy expert Tom Burke CBE, said in an address to the Law Society in 2007.
Building a nuclear power station is an expensive and long process. In the U.S. and UK projected costs of nuclear power stations have been dwarfed by the final total. The Olkiluoto 3 nuclear power plant in Finland is currently under construction but has been beset by problems; costs have spiralled from $3.6 billion to $5.8 billion. Doubts persist that the number of nuclear power stations in the UK that would be needed to plug the perceived energy gap could be built in time, with average construction time taking around 5 years and lengthy consultation and approval times potentially doubling the build schedule.
Reducing CO2 emissions?
It has been argued that building more nuclear power stations would not lead to the necessary reduction in greenhouse gases as nuclear power only provides around 16 percent of the world's electricity. A report by the Sustainable Development Commission in the UK established that even if the UK doubles its nuclear facilities there would only be an 8 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2035.
Critics of nuclear power also suggest that the carbon dioxide produced by nuclear power is not as low as many in the industry claim. If mining the uranium and decommissioning the power plants is taken into account, Greenpeace contend that nuclear power stations produce around 50 percent more greenhouse emissions than wind power.
Nevertheless there are many that believe nuclear power has an important role to play in reducing carbon emissions and plugging a potential energy gap.
Malcolm Grimston, Association Fellow of Chatham House, believes that nuclear power is the best way to lower greenhouse gas emissions and in the UK's case, providing sustained and reliable baseload energy.
"Baseload requirement for electricity is somewhere around 20,000 megawatts, 24 hour. That has to be coming reliably, and you just can't be sure when the wind is blowing or the sun is going to be out. In terms of baseload energy, it's not about nuclear vs. renewables, they aren't appropriate because of their intermittency. It's nuclear vs. gas or coal," says Grimston.
Supporters of nuclear power point to the advances made in the industry in the last 30 years. Modern reactors are safer than they were in the 1970s, with safety shut-downs far less frequent.
While the capital costs of nuclear power are much larger proportion than other energy sources, supporters of nuclear power point out that the costs of the fuel, uranium, are relatively stable, and not subject to the same market fluctuations.
"Nuclear had its economic problems, but it has a track record that proves it can deliver, and some of the renewables don't have that. At current fossil fuel prices it's very clear that nuclear is the most economically attractive option. There isn't a single snappy solution to providing energy in the future," says Grimston.
What do you think? Have your say and join the debate
We cannot exclude the nuclear alternative source of energy especially now when technologies exist to minimize environmental impacts. However, each country must evaluate more than one alternative giving more weight to those which are more appropriate to their locations and resources (e.g. geothermal in Iceland, biofuel in Brazil, OTEC in oceanic islands, wind power or any reasonable combinations of the above). I do not yet see any single best solution, but a mosaic of solutions for energy related problems including changes in the style of living and in the way we think. I recommend the book "Solar Revolution" by Travis Bradford who objectively evaluates existing alternative to our energy problems.
One day, sooner rather than later, even the staunchest environmentalist will have to wake up and face the realities. Conservation and the so called renewables will never be able to make a significant contribution to addressing the world's energy needs. Just like Mr. Grimson says - its nuclear vs. gas and coal, which in the face of the global warming problem, should be a no-brainer, even in a pathologically anti-nuclear Austria!
A wind turbine produces at best 30 percent of the installed power. For a 1.5 megawatt turbine this is 500kW. To replace a 1 megawatt power plant we need some 2000 wind turbines! Yes, we need nuclear power if only to bridge the time until alternative sources are available.
I worked in the nuclear industry for over 20 years in the design and construction of nuclear power plants and I know personally of the commitment and concern engineers had for the safety and well being of both the general public and workers at the operating plant.
There have been two major "nuclear" incidents/accidents in the history of commercial power generation - Three Mile Island (economic) and Chernobyl (economic & public health). Yet any deaths related to nuclear energy are miniscule compared to the number of mining deaths for coal (in China alone), or caused by atmospheric pollutants, or in the gas/oil industry (especially off-shore). No one wants any deaths from any industry but reality is that it is going to happen and all we can do is minimize it.
To me nuclear is not only the cleaner option, it is the safer option. Let economics decide which is out best options, but lets face it, coal is dirty and gas/oil is s steadily declining resource.
We have to take and accept the serious disadvantages too. To minimize this one should keep in mind that big geographical areas are surrounded by huge nuclear power plants already.
We should have learned from our mistakes like Chernobyl by now. Besides, it's still the most effective and cleanest source of energy. Put the power plant deep below ground, saving it from itself as well as terrorism! And the waste, well the cooling water will be hard to get rid of, but the core, well, let's put science back into action.
The generation of energy is probably a process that depends very much on temporary solutions until a better way is discovered without interrupting the continuity of energy supplies that we need to develop new and cleaner ways. Nuclear power is definitely one of those ways to bridge the gap to even better and cleaner energy. Rejecting it is extremely naive and shortsighted.
Yes, but this report only talks about nuclear fission. Nuclear fusion can eventually be the answer to human power demands. Half-lifes of fusion waste will be much shorter than that of current fission reactors.