Why Progressives Must Stop Reflexively Opposing Nuclear Power

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Amid rising concerns about climate change, nuclear power provides a clean, sustainable solution. Progressives must recognise its value as an energy source.

The ongoing energy debate is one of the central debates of the 21st century. As climate change becomes an ever more pressing policy issue, finding a source of energy which is clean and sustainable, while simultaneously not being prohibitively expensive and detrimental to the global economy, is imperative. Fossil fuels and a majority of renewable energies have either the former or latter issue. Nuclear energy, while maligned by much of the public, especially progressives and climate activists, does not have either of these issues to the same degree as other energy sources. It, therefore, behoves progressives who are serious about reducing carbon emissions and adhering to climate change agreements such as the Paris agreement, which stipulates a 5% reduction in emissions from 2000 levels, to consider the use of nuclear power as an energy source.

The utility of nuclear energy

Nuclear power is one of the cleanest available energy sources. Its carbon footprint, for instance, is significantly lower in comparison to many other energy sources currently utilised. Nuclear power plants emit one-tenth the rate of greenhouse gasses (41 grams/kilowatt hour) compared to natural gas. Additionally, nuclear plants emit at a rate approximately 25 times lower than that coal. The rate of emissions for nuclear energy is also taking into account all the associated activities of the plant, including constructing the plant as well as waste treatment and storage. Though these rates are somewhat higher than that of solar and wind-based energy, it is still far lower than that of fossil fuels.

Another argument in favour of nuclear energy is its sustainability as an energy source, as well as its ability to generate large amounts of power consistently. At present, renewable clean sources of energy such as solar and wind cannot reliably produce mass amounts of energy consistently, in the way nuclear power can. The amount of energy produced also naturally depends on the weather, meaning energy reserves are not consistent in the same way nuclear energy reserves are. Uranium, while not being renewable in the way solar or hydro-based is, is still – what can be considered – a sustainable source of energy. The reason this distinction can be made is simple. At current usage rates, there are sufficient uranium supplies to last thousands of years. This is also based on the assumption of more traditional nuclear power plants, which are not as energy-efficient as newer counterparts. Newer plants, which are much more efficient, utilise a fraction of the uranium they previously did. Recent advances in technology have resulted in nuclear power plants being even more efficient in terms of energy output.

Nuclear Power, Renewable Energy, Sustainable Energy

An infographic highlighting the efficiency of nuclear power relative to other clean and sustainable energy sources. Image Credit: Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.

Case Studies: France and Australia

France provides a useful case study for sceptical progressives to consider. Nuclear power currently accounts for nearly three-quarters of its overall electricity production. The remainder of its energy supply is provided by renewables such as solar and wind energy. As a result of this combination of energy sources, France has a remarkably high level of energy security. It has plentiful reserves of cheap and reliable energy which is clean and environmentally friendly. In fact, its energy surplus is such that it earns about 3 billion euros per year in energy exports. From an economic standpoint, therefore, nuclear power is a pragmatic choice once it is up and running. The cost of producing nuclear energy is much lower than that of producing energy from coal, gas, oil or other renewable forms of energy. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, France’s record once it transitioned to a high level of nuclear energy use is also very strong. From the 1970s onwards, greenhouse gas emissions in France were reduced at a rate of about 2% per year. To this day, rates of greenhouse gas emissions remain low in France, largely as a result of the nation’s reliance on nuclear as a power source.

Currently, virtually every G20 nation, with the exception of Australia, utilises nuclear power in some form. The fact that Australia has not pursued nuclear power as an energy source in any capacity is especially peculiar given the amount of uranium within the country. However, public fears and political inertia on the issue have meant the issue has been off the table for several decades. Even as energy prices have soared in recent years and the nation’s capital cities have endured blackouts during the summer season, public sentiment on the issue has not budged. A major stumbling block on this issue in Australia has been the question of where to store nuclear waste. Proponents of nuclear power have long argued that there are ample potential storage sites in the vast Australian outback. The states and territories, however, have all resisted the move, arguing other states should house the waste from any nuclear power plants. Most recently, the state of South Australia, after exploring the issue, declined to go ahead with a proposed nuclear storage site in July of 2017. With all this in mind, Australia would benefit greatly from adding nuclear energy to its range of energy sources, tapping into large uranium reserves. Doing so would also make meeting its obligations toward reducing carbon emissions, in line with the Paris climate agreement, much more tenable.

“Modern power plants are far less likely to meltdown because of changes to the way they are designed….and the level of highly radioactive waste is much less than conventionally assumed.”

Potential Dangers

It would be remiss to ignore the risks nuclear power poses. The memory of the Fukushima and Chernobyl disasters of 2011 and 1986 respectively are still fresh in people’s memories. Understandably, the possibility of a repeat disaster of this scale makes any argument supporting nuclear power untenable for many, regardless of the myriad benefits it can bring. On the occasions where plants meltdown, the effects are comparatively worse than for coal-powered plants or other plants. The meltdowns of the Three Mile Island plant in the United States, Fukushima in Japan and especially Chernobyl in Ukraine has a disastrous effect.

However, those are isolated cases, visible outliers for the otherwise benign and safe source of power that is nuclear energy. Modern power plants are far less likely to meltdown because of changes to the way they are designed. The plants in Three Mile Island, Fukushima and Chernobyl had a meltdown due to impediments in their cooling systems, which were based on electric pumps which pumped water through the system. Modern plants are gravity-based, using elevated storage tanks to drain cooling water into. Major incidents, which require the plant to shut down have been reduced exponentially as a result of this change. Another drawback of nuclear energy is the associated waste it produces. As well as being politically unpopular, as the aforementioned Australian case study showed, there are environmental dangers associated with the disposal of nuclear waste. As it remains radioactive for up to 10,000 years, nuclear waste must be securely stored in a safe manner. The level of radioactivity does, however, diminish over time and the level of highly radioactive waste is much less than conventionally assumed.

Conclusion

Nuclear energy, as with any other energy source, is not a panacea for all the energy and climate problems facing the world. Ideally, nuclear energy would be utilised alongside other forms of clean, renewable energy as traditional fossil fuels are phased out. Nuclear power as an energy source could assist greatly in this transitional period. It is important for progressives to recognise this. At this moment, and for the foreseeable future, the cost of adopting renewable energy as a predominant source of power is prohibitively high. Furthermore, the majority of the financial burden would be placed on the most vulnerable, developing nations of the world were this to occur, hardly a progressive, forward-thinking outcome. An uptake in the adoption of nuclear power represents an ideal compromise which recognises economic reality whilst making a serious effort to combat climate change.

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About Author

Scott Davies is a freelance writer from Adelaide, Australia, with an interest in politics, history and culture. He holds a BA (Honours) in History and is currently studying a Master of Teaching (Secondary).

4 Comments

  1. “Though these rates (of CO2 emissions from nuclear) are somewhat higher than that of solar and wind-based energy, it is still far lower than that of fossil fuels.”

    According to the IPCC (the world’s official global warming body), nuclear’s total net CO2 emissions are about the same as wind, and are several times *lower* than those of solar. They are also several times lower than hydro and biomass. Nuclear and wind are roughly tied as the lowest-emitting source of all.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life-cycle_greenhouse-gas_emissions_of_energy_sources

    The article correctly points out the abundance of uranium (thousands of years of supply), but even that is an understatement. Supplies of uranium are essentially infinite, especially if one considers seawater extraction. No reprocessing or advanced reactors needed.

    http://www.americanenergyindependence.com/uranium.aspx

    https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2016/07/01/uranium-seawater-extraction-makes-nuclear-power-completely-renewable/#26a5a971159a

    “On the occasions where plants meltdown, the effects are comparatively worse than for coal-powered plants or other plants.”

    Depends on how you define it. Yes, a nuclear plant which melts down has a greater impact than that of a *single* coal plant. However, the impacts of even worst case meltdowns (e.g., Fukushima) are far less than the DAILY impacts of coal generation, worldwide. Fukushima, a worst-case meltdown of three large reactors, and the only significant release of pollution in non-Soviet nuclear’s entire ~50 year history, has had (and will have) no measurable public health impact. Pessimistic theoretical estimates top out at ~100 total eventual deaths. That compares with ~1000 deaths every single day from coal generation. Over the ~50 years that nuclear has been around, fossil power generation has caused on the order of 10 million deaths, along with global warming, vs. ~100 for non-Soviet nuclear. That’s ~100,000 times as many deaths from fossil, in addition to global warming.

    The world is far from being remiss concerning the risks from nuclear accidents and waste. On the contrary, those issues are given far too much weight. This is especially true now that Fukushima showed just how small to non-existent the public health impacts are from even a worst-case meltdown. As the statistics I gave above show, nuclear’s risks/impacts are simply negligible. TMI? Seriously? Negligible release and zero impact. As for Chernobyl, that is simply not applicable to any discussion of the merits of modern nuclear power.

    As for nuclear waste, again the risks are negligible. Despite myths to the contrary, the long-term risks from nuclear waste are far *smaller* than those of other waste streams, as other waste streams are vastly larger in volume, are in a much more difficult to contain physical/chemical form, have toxic constituents that *never* decay away (unlike nuclear waste), and are disposed of with infinitely less care. Nuclear is the only industry that is required to demonstrate that its waste will remain contained, and never have any significant impact, for as long as it remains hazardous; an impeccable standard that no other waste stream comes close to meeting.

    BTW, it’s no mystery why nuclear never moved forward in Australia. Coal is one of Australia’s most powerful industries. Nuclear would be a direct competitor/threat. Thus, they’ve engaged in a propaganda campaign and have used their influence with politicians to make sure that nuclear remains off the table. These factors are responsible for the public fears and lack of political support.

  2. Those who praise nuclear inevitably tend to cherry pick their statistics. First, nuclear can not get private insurance to cover the possibility of a major accident. There are ample reasons for this, and it should not be ignored. Second, safety is of secondary priority to profits among most of the owners of the plants. The weakest part of the nuclear plant is the owner, second weakest is the regulator. Third, there have been many hundreds of accidents at nuclear lants that are never publicized. Fourth, startups that are not funded by governments (tax payers) are proverbial hens teeth. Fifth, only two nations, both of which are relatively light nuclear operators, have tackled the issue of waste disposal. Until the global nuclear industry properly takes care of its waste, no further nuclear plants should be built. Sixth, nuclear plants routinely vent and discharge radioactive isotopes into the environment, forming cancer clusters in their vicinity. And this is the short list.

    Responsibly operated nuclear plants can be a benefit. The problem is that so many are not responsibly and ethically run because its not profitable to do so. Corners are consistently and quietly cut to make them competitive with other forms of electrical production. It is the harm that these profitable shortcuts are doing that keeps progressives against nuclear power.

  3. The illustration captioned “Representation of a nuclear reaction” shows a green luminance. Uranium-containing glass can actually produce a colour fairly close to this, when illuminated by ultraviolet light, but this is fluorescence, not a nuclear process. You can blacklight pieces of vaseline glass to your heart’s content without creating any nuclear radiation.

    Luminance that actually does result from nuclear reaction can be seen here: https://youtu.be/UxQdS0pbpKo . It’s a nice shade of blue.

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