Nuclear power is one of those issues that has a tendency to invoke all sorts of emotional reactions. It has the ability, as an issue, to take self-acclaimed scientific parties, such as Green parties, from their scientific-environmental approach right through to pig-headed emotionalism. Given the environmental context in which we now live – and understand – this redundant emotional response is actually quite harmful.
Nuclear power is one of the strongest ways in which we can begin to mitigate our impact upon our environment, and therefore anthropogenic climate change. This article will be structured within the scientific consensus that anthropogenic climate change is very much a reality and a potent one at that. Any measure that allows us to reduce our impact upon the environment, while also being relatively inexpensive, and providing the necessary energy output, is a boon for policy makers. Nuclear power is not only a proven technology but, unlike many other renewable energies, is actually capable of replacing conventional power plants.
Problems with Renewable Energy
The most important thing to note is that no form of energy generation method we currently have is fully renewable as all require resources to create. To label something as ‘renewable’ one would automatically assume that sustainability and, for all intents and purposes, permanence, could be applied equally as strong.
The degree to which these technologies are renewable, however, is confined purely to their fuel source, and nothing more. By this definition, that permanence of fuel equates to sustainable and renewable, then surely municipal waste is also a renewable source of energy? Needless to say, I cannot imagine many environmentalists proclaiming a renewable source in the form of waste-to-incineration; and quite right, the technology is quite suspect and should be avoided given its negative impact on recycling rates.
However, there is far more to the technology than just the fuel they use, but the materials that compose the technology itself. To take solar panels as a case in point, although one can make them from silicon, a very common substance, solar cells made from silicon are unbelievably inefficient compared to other energy generation technologies. To make solar cells more efficient, and thus ultimately more attractive, one must utilise far rarer metals. Solar cells utilise the material indium which has not only become more sought after but significantly more expensive as a result of the substances usability in LCD Televisions. Furthermore, indium has been predicted to run out in roughly a decades time, a reality which can be witnessed within the price of indium: between January 1992 and January 2012, the price for indium shot up from a mere $200 per kilogram to just short of $800, after a peak of $1000 per kilogram in 2006 (PDF). A fuller contrast of total levied costs per so many units of energy will be covered later, this was but to highlight that renewable technologies are not all that renewable and utilise very rare, and potentially expensive metals. Indeed, when one considers wind power in terms of space used per energy unit produced [W/m2], we see that nuclear power is once again on top.
One element that appears absent from discussions surrounding energy generation is space: the amount of land in which we can develop and the amount of land in which we would wish to develop. I make the distinction because the United Kingdom is not a very well developed country in the sense that the majority of the land is undeveloped. The UK National Ecosystem Assessment found that in England only 2.27% of the land is actually developed (built on) meaning that just under 98% of England is defined as natural land.
When looking at the United Kingdom as a whole, we find that only 1.5% is developed (built on). According to the Department for the Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, when taking into account all developed and agricultural land, the figure rises closer to one third (PDF). It would be folly to ignore these facts when discussing energy generation as the production of energy requires space, it requires development, and as environmentalists, we should be seeking to limit that development and consumption of space as much as possible.
The figures within Table 1 show that renewable energies are ‘space inefficient’ when compared to nuclear power or conventional plants and thus to replace conventional plants with renewable energies would require significant develop of currently undeveloped land and even greater development if nuclear power is removed from the picture. Table 1 makes clear that nuclear power is the most ‘space efficient’ energy technology.
Sources: The Real Problem With Renewables – Forbes || One last chance to save mankind – opinion – 23 January 2009 – New Scientist || Sustainable Energy – without the hot air: Power per unit land area of windfarms
The Cost of Energy Generation Technologies
In 2010, Parsons Brinckerhoff published a report into the total levelised generation costs of several renewable, non-renewable and nuclear energies. As we can see from Table 2, in terms of cost, our more traditional natural gas proves to be the most cost effective, followed by biomass, nuclear power and onshore wind. Indeed, these figures show quite clearly that for an environmental group to claim that nuclear power is expensive and thus should not be developed, while at the same time advocating the development of renewable energies, is absurd. Table 2 makes quite clear that nuclear power is among the cheaper energy generation technologies we have.
Furthermore, what we witness from Figure 1 is that the expense from nuclear power is not from its emissions, nor from the decommissioning of the plant, the general overheads, nor its operation and maintenance, and definitely not its fuel. The primary cost is the upfront capital expenditure: the cost of actually building the plant itself. All other associated costs are relatively inexpensive, meaning that once the plant has actually been built, operation of the aforementioned plant is inexpensive. Nuclear shares its capital heavy expenditure characteristic with other renewable energies such as wind (onshore and offshore) and tidal power. What separates nuclear plants from wind turbines, however, is the lifespan.
The average life span of a nuclear plant can be upwards of forty years, with the potential to extent that to potentially a century. Conversely, the wind energy industry and Government base calculations on turbines enjoying a lifespan of twenty to twenty-five years, while recent analysis has shown that a wind turbines effective lifespan (in the sense that it can generate electricity effectively) is closer to twelve or fifteen years which is significantly lower than that for nuclear power. So we have a more long lived technology and, depending on whether the wind energy is derived on or off shore, cheaper too.
An important element of the discussion surrounding these technologies is also the degree to which they are subsidised by the tax payer. In 2010, a study by the Global Subsidies Initiative outlined the subsidies that each energy category receives per unit of energy produced. As we can witness from Table 3, nuclear receives significantly less in the way of public subsidies on a global level than does renewable or Biofuel. This means that nuclear remains the cheaper energy production method as well as the least supported by government in terms of subsidies applied globally.
The Safety Record of Nuclear Power
One of the major criticisms of nuclear power from environmental lobbies, and Green political parties, is that nuclear power is terribly unsafe. One only has to look into the events of Fukishima or Chernobyl to appreciate this fact; and emphasis the word fact to ensure no discussion can take place. However, while no energy generation technique remains perfectly safe, to suggest that nuclear power is any more dangerous than conventional plants is not born out of the statistics.
As can be seen from the statistics above, nuclear power has the lowest deathprint of all the energy generation types listed above, even when including the worst-case Chernobyl numbers and Fukushima projections and uranium mining deaths. The deathprint for nuclear power can be explained in that there are few nuclear power plants and that the ones that do exist produce such great levels of electricity as to diminish the deaths when measured against energy generation as expressed deaths per terawatt hour (TWh) .
Furthermore, nuclear power safety regulations demand high levels of protective technology with passive redundant safety systems, and must be able to withstand the worst case disasters no matter how unlikely they are. Indeed, it is the relative safety of nuclear power that encouraged George Monbiot, noted environmental journalist, to both ‘love nuclear power’ and be converted to the cause of nuclear power.
Like all technologies, nuclear power has its failures. It will be a common argument for anyone familiar with an environmental debate that both Chernobyl and Fukushima were deadly nuclear disasters that laid waste to millions of people. These two examples are utilised to explain the deadly nature of nuclear power.
But as outlined above, taken globally and averaged out as an expression TWh, we see that nuclear is no more dangerous than wind, solar or hydro power, something environmentalists advocate. Furthermore, the claims that nuclear power is somehow responsible for millions of deaths in either of these cases is wrong.
Indeed a report published by the Chernobyl Forum concluded that these claims ‘are highly exaggerated’ (PDF). The World Health Organisation, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations Development Programme estimate that radiation from the disaster will cause up to about four thousand eventual deaths among the higher exposed populations.
Environmentalists often quote a Greenpeace report that suggested that there will be 270,000 cases of cancer attributable to Chernobyl fallout, and that 93,000 of these will probably be fatal. However, concern has been expressed about the methods used in compiling the report, and the report has not been subject to peer review nor does it rely on peer reviewed science as the Chernobyl Forum report does.
The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) concluded that the total death toll reliably attributable to the radiation produced by the disaster stands at 62* (PDF). The same highly exaggerated claims have been made toward the Fukushima disaster as well, claims which Dr. James Conca, an international expert on the environmental effects of radioactive contamination, dismissed rather flippantly by comparing the dose of radiation from living within the evacuated zones around Fukushima with his yearly consumption of crisps.
He goes on to offer advice to the radiation worried Germans that if they are ‘worried about radiation then a more sensible course of action [than shutting down their nuclear plants] would be to stop eating crisps, beets, brazil nuts and bananas, all of which are relatively high but ultimately harmless sources of radiation’.
Indeed, what makes this reaction more hyperbolic is that fly ash emitted by conventional coal powered plants carried into the surrounding environment 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy. James Lovelock further explains away the radiation issue within his book, the Revenge of Gaia, by pointing out that during the nuclear testing in 1962 alone equalled the output of 20,000 Hiroshima warheads. Such tests, Lovelock argues, released radioactive materials into the air equal to two Chernobyl disasters per week for a whole year and yet no proven health damage to humans has been observed since.
[A full comparison chart of radiation can be found here: Radiation Chart | xkcd]
In short, what we witness with nuclear power is a proven technology that can provide masses of energy inexpensively, efficiently, and while being friendly to the environment. Much of the criticisms of nuclear power are usually hyperbolic in nature and rely on highly exaggerated statistics and figures, quite often from non-peer reviewed and non-scientifically sourced documents.
One need not like nuclear power to appreciate the necessity of developing nuclear power to meet not only our energy demands but also our international obligations for the reduction of certain emissions. Notably, like renewable energies, the carbon footprint of nuclear power is quite small save for the actual construction of the plant and the mining of Uranium.
Compared to conventional plants, and even renewable energies, nuclear power is resoundingly safe with a far lower death toll per unit of energy than any other mainstream energy technology. Even following crisis and disaster, the death toll from nuclear is resoundingly small. The Chernobyl incident resulted in the death of a few thousand individuals, while Fukushima has resulted in the death of none. Conversely, the worst energy disaster in the Banqiao dam disaster that killed upto an estimated 230,000 people. If we are to meet our international obligations; to produce sufficient energy to meet our demands; and to produce energy safely, nuclear power has to be part of our energy market.