Nuclear power: Yes or no?

Eoin Griffin.

In 2015, fossil fuels, such as coal, natural gas and oil, made up 53% of energy creation in the UK [1]. With the growth in population increasing the demand for energy and the depletion of the world’s resources, I ask, ‘Is nuclear energy the answer?’

At the moment, the UK has 21 nuclear reactors that produce about 21% of the electricity. However, this will almost half by 2025 as a number of power plants will have to be retired due to their lifetime of 40-60 years. [2] This will mean that the 10-11% of energy lost will have to be made up by renewables which will be possible but, what happens when the coal and other sources run out or we ban fossil fuels. Will renewables be able to make up that 53%?

Renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, are getting better and there is no doubt that someday it will become the primary source of energy creation in the world. However, the technology needed to produce around the clock 365 days a year energy from renewable sources is only in the early stages of development. The major problems with them are their ability to store the energy they create and their capability to increase and decrease their output as the daily demand for energy changes, as was seen in Hawaii in 2013 [3]. What happens if demand rockets up and there is just not enough sunlight or wind to create the energy needed?  As the energy crisis is upon us now, waiting and hoping for renewables to take giant leaps forward is not only wrong but could potentially send humanity back 200 years and, also, ignorantly carrying on with burning fossil fuels could lead to disasters bigger than anyone can foresee. Therefore, using renewables in conjunction with a more reliable energy clean energy source, such as nuclear power, will sustain us through the energy crisis and will also allow for the improvement of solar, wind and other renewable sources until they either take over or we finally create self-sustained fusion power.

So why is there opposition to nuclear power?

One of the main issues with nuclear power is the safety of the plants. Events, such as the ones at Chernobyl and Fukushima plants where reactors exploded and directly killed 38 people, have severely damaged the reputation of this industry. There are concerns that the total death toll could rise close to 4000 due to cancers and other diseases related to the radiation leakage of the plants.  All accounted for, there have been 20 nuclear accidents worldwide with a fatality count into the thousands. However, looking at the statistics, its shows that the deaths/year/TWh then the number of fatalities by nuclear power is the least:

Coal – 161, oil – 36, Natural gas – 4, biomass – 12, solar – 0.44, Hydro – 1.4, Nuclear – 0.04. [4]

This shows that the fear people have for nuclear power is misguided. – yes;  for sure, nuclear accidents can occur and cause massive amounts of damage to humans and the environment but the stigma around nuclear power being unsafe and dangerous is wrong. It works out that, for every 1 person that dies from nuclear power per watt produced, 4000 die from coal! [5].This, when you think about it, is actually not too surprising. The main problem with using fossil fuels is that it is polluting the earth. When you see pictures of people in China wearing gas masks on a daily basis and actually buying bottles of clean air, it should come as no surprise that the fatalities caused by coal and other fossil fuel plants are high. Not only this but, as the planet warms up and the seas become deeper, the amount of flooding has increased which would have caused fatalities as well. Personally, I have seen two major floods in my city in the past 10 years.

This fear of nuclear power comes directly from nuclear weapons. Ever since Hiroshima and Nagasaki the word nuclear has been taken out of context. When you ask anyone from the general public what they think when you mention the word nuclear, the vast majority of them will mention topics such as atom bombs, explosions and death and will mention nothing about the actual meaning of the word. Public perception is a major issue in trying to create new nuclear power plants because hundreds of people tend to protest and sign petitions against them which leads to projects being delayed which costs money and resources. This has also been an issue with something as harmless as an MRI scanner.  In the 1970s, they changed the name of the scanners from NMR, nuclear magnetic resonance, to MRI, magnetic resonance imaging, because the word nuclear made people fearful of the machine. Unfortunately, the name of nuclear power can’t now be changed to disguise it as something else. The best way out of this is to increase education about nuclear power with specific focus on how nuclear power stations work and highlighting the differences between them and a nuclear bomb. Also, produce information showing that, statistically, nuclear power stations are extremely safe while making the public more aware of the dangerous of pollution from the particulates that are created and are released into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels. This may help to change people’s perception of nuclear power which could solve all of our energy problems.

Also, there is the issue of where to put the waste products of the fission reaction. The main problem is that the waste is dangerous. By-products, such as plutonium, are created which is one of the most toxic substances known.  If this material were to get into lakes, rivers, and the atmosphere, either through natural disasters or through explosions, it would be of huge concern as this radioactive material will stay radioactive for thousands of years and the ionising radiation produced can cause cancers and radiation poisoning.  Therefore, the waste needs to be safely and securely stored away. But is all the waste dangerous?

There are three categories of waste products from a nuclear plant. There is low level waste (LLW) which makes up about 94% of the waste but only 1% of the radioactive waste. This waste is of no harm so does not require shielding and can be disposed of in shallow land burial.  Intermediate level waste (ILW) makes up about 6% of the volume waste and 4% of the radioactive waste.  It contains slightly radioactive materials, such as the metal cladding and some materials from the reactor. This waste is stored on site and put into large steel and concrete containers and, therefore, it would be very hard for anyone to get the harmful radiative material out from the shielding [6].  The most dangerous waste is the high level waste (HLW).  This waste contributes less than 0.1% of all volume waste but has about 95% of all radioactive waste. It usually contains the used up fuel rods or the separated waste from reprocessing and is the most harmful by-product.

One of the primary concerns about nuclear power is the transporting of the uranium and the HLW.  The nuclear industry has been working for over 50 years and there has not been one incident in which a collision or a breach of container has occurred. The packages are shielded and are designed to withstand extreme conditions. The transportation of waste internationally and domestically is just as safe, if not safer, than petrol or chemical transportation. The idea that that there is huge risk in moving radioactive waste is wrong and is a trivial hazard. Unfortunately, all this waste has to go somewhere. The majority of the waste from a coal power plant goes into the atmosphere, releasing thousands of tonnes of CO2 and other harmful products. Whereas nuclear plants do not release anything into the atmosphere, all of its waste can be contained meaning that they are more accountable for their waste. This accountability forces the plant owners and governments to put in place regulations on the handling and storing of the waste. Dealing with waste that can easily be stored is surely much easier than dealing with tiny particulates that get released from burning fossil fuels? However, where will all this waste go?  Here in the UK, the HLW gets reprocessed and recycled at Sellafield with any excess uranium being reused in the plants and the rest going into storage.  Currently, there is about 12000 tonnes of HLW produced worldwide which is a very small amount and is equivalent to a two story structure. There have been a few ideas to put the waste into space but this would be far too expensive and risky, given that the shuttles can explode which would cause serious environmental problems if HLW was on board.  The main reason for HLW being so bad is that it can stay radioactive for a very long time. If we could reduce that time down to hundreds of years instead of thousands, waste storage would be a much smaller issue. One way of potentially doing this would be to bombard the waste with neutrons which would change the long lived nuclides into shorter lived nuclides. However, there would be a lot of challenges to this which would probably make this method unfeasible.

The current solution to the problem is to bury the radioactive waste which has come up against very strong opposition.  The main argument against this is what would happen in the event of leakage caused by seismic activity. If it were to occur, our food and water supply would be contaminated and there would innumerable deaths caused by the increased probability of getting cancers. Additionally, it would mean that the local wildlife habitats would be destroyed, having extremely adverse effects on ecosystems. Also, large areas of land would have to be sealed off, which may not be affordable as the world population expands.  How safe is it to bury the waste? When the HLW goes into a geological repository, the waste is protected in ceramics, concrete and steel that can stop leakages. It is also buried in places that have a stable formation so that earthquakes are very unlikely to happen. The repositories are also designed so that in the event of an earthquake, the harmful waste cannot get out and cause damage to the environment. There are even examples of this in nature. For instance, uranium ore is found underground. Even though there have been a lot of earthquakes, the ore has not contaminated the surface.

Additionally, we know that in the earth’s past, there have been nuclear reactions that have taken place in locations such as Gabon in Africa. The long life waste products from those reactions have not contaminated or caused any damage to the environment. The concern that terrorists could dig up these repositories and use the waste for nuclear bombs is unrealistic due to the amount of safeguards put in place by governments and agencies. The best place to store the waste is deep in the ground and with the increase in development and technology of nuclear power, the safer it will become.

 

Some people believe that, with the climate the way it is and the future predictions of our climate, making a wholesale shift toward nuclear would be a bad decision.  We need to consider the fact that it was a tsunami that caused the Fukushima reactor to leak. Therefore, with models that predict increased flooding, hurricanes and other natural disasters, does the Fukushima incident serve as a warming that nuclear power plants are vulnerable?  Could they be part of the problem instead of the solution? When building a nuclear plant, the plant has to be near a large body of water to cool the reactor which means that they must be built on the coasts or near vast lakes. These areas are more susceptible to flooding and storms and if climate models are correct, the plants built will not be able to withstand the amount of water. Additionally, if the water heats up, the reactor loses efficiency which was seen during the heat wave in Europe in 2003. Droughts can also cause massive legal battles between nuclear facilities and people due to water scarcity.

Is it also too late to build a large amount of nuclear plants? It take on average 5-8 years to build a nuclear plant which does not include the planning and licensing time [7]. Therefore, it will take over 20 years to be able to build the number of plants needed in just the UK. Potentially, the money could be better spent developing renewable energies. However, the cost of building nuclear plants is high and slow because the supply chain for materials and large pieces of equipment, such as the reactors, is poor. This is one of the main reasons as to why nuclear power is expensive. There are only a few companies in the world who can actually make these products. Therefore, the costs are high. We all know one-off production costs a lot – so if there was a huge shift towards nuclear power, then these costs will be significantly reduced and as supply chains get better, there will be more money to be made in the nuclear sectors leading to more businesses making the necessary parts of a nuclear plant, which will also speed up fabrication time of the plants and create thousands of jobs, improving our economy. Therefore, making a large change to nuclear is much more cost effective than doing it in incremental stages and will reduce the amount of time we are dependent on fossil fuels, lower greenhouse emissions and will slow down global warming.

 

It is clear that people’s concerns over the safety of nuclear power is the most dominant problem. People still believe that the issues over waste, transport and fear of proliferation are still a major problem, despite the fact that we have been using nuclear power for over 50 years and have had no incidents. Statistically speaking, the safety of nuclear power plants is impeccable and will only improve as the sector develops. Maybe, if the first use of nuclear energy wasn’t a bomb (even though they operate in a very different way to power plants), people’s misguided views on the word nuclear would be less strong and we could already be living in a low carbon, low emissions and clean energy world. As we tackle issues of global warming and the energy crisis, we need to not only look ahead but also focus on what we can do now. With the increase in population not only within the UK but within other countries and the fact that more countries are developing at a fast rate such as India, we need source of energy that will be clean but can also provide enough energy. Surely, the only viable solution to this is to use nuclear power.

 

 

 

[1] http://www.energy-uk.org.uk/energy-industry/electricity-generation.html

[2] http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/country-profiles/countries-t-z/united-kingdom.aspx

[3] http://energydesk.greenpeace.org/2015/12/23/three-problems-transitioning-renewables-how-to-fix/

[4] http://www.theenergycollective.com/willem-post/191326/deaths-nuclear-energy-compared-other-causes

[5] http://www.the9billion.com/2011/03/24/death-rate-from-nuclear-power-vs-coal/

[6] http://www.ccg.leeds.ac.uk/teaching/nuclearwaste/nuclearwaste.html

[7] https://www.oecd-nea.org/news/press-kits/economics-FAQ.html

 

Nuclear power: Yes or no?

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