Many experts see nuclear power as one of the best options for large-scale decarbonization worldwide.
Life on Earth is in a parlous state, according to a new United Nations report, which warns of an impending global mass extinction. Unless we change our ways, UN experts say, life on Earth as we have known it will cease to exist in coming decades.
A rapid transitioning to clean energy sources will be a key part of mitigation efforts, not least because by 2100 we’ll likely be using well over twice as much electricity globally as we do today and we’re using plenty already as it is. And apart from renewables, nuclear power is seen by most experts as one of the best options to achieve large-scale decarbonization.
Unlike renewables like wind and solar, nuclear isn’t dependent on weather conditions, making it ideal as a safe and reliable provider of constant stable-grid electricity on an industrial scale, experts argue. “Per unit of energy produced, nuclear is the safest of all energy sources. Nuclear plants do not release any air or water pollutants as part of their normal operation. They operate 24/7, unlike intermittent solar and wind which must be backed up by methane gas-burning plants since grid-scale storage is still years away,” David Watson, a British physicist and clean energy advocate, tells Sustainability Times.
“A study by climate scientists at NASA estimated that by displacing more polluting energy sources, nuclear power has saved 1.8 million lives (and counting),” the expert adds. “Even solar and wind cause more deaths per unit of energy produced than nuclear. This is partly down to the energy density of uranium,” he elucidates. “A small plant produces a massive amount of electricity. By relying on diffuse sources of energy like the sun and the air, much more construction and maintenance is required, and inevitably there are accidents.”
By comparison, out of the three nuclear accidents ever no one died from radiation at Three Mile Island in the United States and Fukushima in Japan, while at Chernobyl in Ukraine 31 people died during the accident and some 200 people later died of cancer. “This pales in comparison to accidents from other energy sources such as hydroelectric dam collapses and gas explosions,” Watson stresses.
The collapse of a hydropower dam in Laos last year, for instance, caused hundreds of deaths among impoverished locals and led to the displacement of entire communities. In addition, hydropower dams can adversely impact local ecosystems by subverting the natural flow of streams and rivers. And air pollution from coal-fired and biomass-burning facilities are major causes of death and diseases such as lung cancer.
However, numerous environmentalists remain opposed to nuclear power, largely over what experts like Watson see as misplaced concerns. “Science shows nuclear is a uniquely capable and safe low-carbon tech, but being anti-nuclear has been a core part of many environmentalists’ beliefs for so long that changing minds is proving hard,” Watson notes.
“Nuclear energy is an emotive topic where facts alone don’t change minds,” he observes. “That is why it is important for environmentalists who do see the technology’s value to speak up about how nuclear is sustainable and can protect our planet against fossil fuel pollution and the industrialization of wild spaces through renewables.”
Still, as the issue of climate change becomes more pressing with every passing year, some environmentalists are changing their minds and speaking up in favor of nuclear energy. “When compared objectively with alternatives, nuclear power performs as well [as] or better than other options in terms of safety, cost, scalability, reliability, land transformation and emissions,” stress two Australian environmental scientists, Prof. Barry W. Brook of the University of Tasmania, and Prof. Corey Bradshaw, of the University of Adelaide.
In an open letter, Brook and Bradshaw have called on their fellow environmentalists to give nuclear energy a fair go. “Although renewable energy sources like wind and solar will likely make increasing contributions to future energy production, these technology options face real-world problems of scalability, cost, material and land use, meaning that it is too risky to rely on them as the only alternatives to fossil fuels,” they argue.
“Nuclear power — being by far the most compact and energy-dense of sources — could also make a major, and perhaps leading, contribution,” they add. “As scientists, we declare that an evidence-based approach to future energy production is an essential component of securing biodiversity’s future.”
Nuclear energy could be a boon to conservation efforts because of its comparatively low environmental impact. Modern nuclear plants make limited use of local water sources and land areas, which means they can operate even in or near protected wildlife habitats. The same cannot always be said of solar and wind farms. Solar farms can take up large swathes of land while wind turbines can pose grave threats to migrating birds and insects.
“Nuclear is uniquely capable of protecting wild spaces from industrialization,” Watson argues. “I think activist Meredith Angwin had it right: Renewables require us to harvest energy from forests, air and rivers. With nuclear we leave rivers to be rivers, not hydro plants. We leave forests to be forests, not biomass farms. We reserve high ridges for soaring eagles, not wind turbines,” he adds.
It is clear that in order to prevent the worst effects of climate change, renewables are important, but they need to be balanced with use of nuclear power, especially since it is not only just about the climate, but about biodiversity and natural habitats as well. “Deserts aren’t barren places primed for solar farms; they are a precious home for endemic reptile and plant species”, Watson says. In our fight against climate change, these words are to be heeded.