pROS AND CONS OF NUCLEAR POWER IN CLIMATE CHANGE MITIGATION
Is the use of Nuclear Power part of the solution to help transition to a de-carbonized form of renewable sources?
Following the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change, what was once a politically overlooked problem has now acquired relevance into daily political talks, and there has been a shift towards environmental and climate change aimed policies at a global level. For example, over the past few months, even the United States of America, which have never been fully compliant with any International Environmental Agreement, has now opted for a multi-years investment plan that aims to decarbonize the electrical sector by 2035 and the entire energy sector by 2050. The goals of the Paris Agreement are many and they are not so easy to be achieved, so how are we going to comply with them? Well, one of the short answers is by improving and maximizing fossil-free sources of power, especially by investing in Nuclear Power plants of new generation, while scientists provide more sustainable renewable sources of energy.
By “Nuclear power plant of new generation” we refer to the so-called water cooled “Small Modular Reactor (SMR)”: a reactor of small and medium size which, differently from the traditional nuclear reactor, can be produced on a large scale cutting down capital costs and that are able to desalinate water and produce hydrogen which can be repurposed.
Because of their small size and modularity, SMRs could lead to easier financing compared to the investment needed for larger plants, therefore, making nuclear energy accessible to more countries. Furthermore, SMRs are built with passive safety systems that reckon on cooling systems and, therefore – almost entirely – eliminate any risk of explosions in case of overheating and are designed to cope with extreme natural hazards, such as the earthquake that preceded the Fukushima Daiichi Accident. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) sponsors in particular SMRs as a valuable option to fulfil the need for flexible and constant power generation by affirming that «Small modular reactors, deployable either as single or multi-module plant, offer the possibility to combine nuclear with alternative energy sources, including renewables».
What makes nuclear power a reliable sustainable resource of energy, which should be still combined with other renewable resources, is its capability of a stable and consistent production, unlike wind farms or photovoltaic plants that depend on seasonality and weather conditions. Moreover, this previously mentioned circumstance, combined with the insignificant carbon footprint comparable in proportion to the one produced by wind farms, makes nuclear power the focal point of discussion on sustainability and de-carbonization in many countries. On another positive note, land footprint is small, producing more electricity on less land than any other clean-air source.
Nevertheless, Nuclear Power is not a simple solution to our extremely high demand of – renewable – energy. Nuclear energy is clean in the sense that it reduces reliance on fossil fuels, but it does have risks attached, even though these are now extremely well managed. It is undeniable that, people associate the words “nuclear power” with health and environmental risks, which result in its extremely unpopularity. Accidents such as the meltdown in Fukushima (2011), the one in Chernobyl (1986) or the one in Three Mile Island (1979) scared the global population and arose many concerns. For example, after the Chernobyl’s disaster, Italy held a referendum to stop the use of power plants in the Country and it won with an astonishing 70% of votes.
Due the transboundary nature of nuclear radiation, health problems can be seen not only in the premises of the area where the disasters happened but worldwide. Just to give some numbers, the official immediate death toll for Chernobyl was reported as 54 people, although this is consistently disputed, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) established a figure of 4,000 projected deaths in the longer term, for example, due to later developed cancer. Even while promoting SMRs as an incredible option to reach a worldwide de-carbonization by 2050, the IAEA does claim that affects to surface, ground and marine water quality, aquatic wildlife and habitats during the life cycle of SMR facilities could occur due to construction in the water, site runoff, dewatering activities, and controlled releases of radiological and non-radiological contaminants. The latter is not the only problem that brings concerns: uranium is not a renewable resource per se and the extraction creates emissions of CO2 as we still lack a way to either produce it in a laboratory or extract uranium in a carbon-emission-free way. Last but not least, even though nuclear energy produces minimal waste, it is important to consider that radioactive waste might pile-up up to 10’000 years, even if scientist are working on a solution. Some critics have argued that renewable energies could come with high hidden greenhouse gas, with a sort of “carbon debt”, which would negate their benefits to the climate, especially a hidden carbon footprint, due to their manufacture and construction.
Mitigating climate change is a long-term obligation and, whether is going to be the choice, it will invest our generation of an immense responsibility but it would be foolish not to explore all the options available. The scale of the challenge to reach net-zero without the help of nuclear energy could be extremely difficult and scientists have been warning us that we need to accelerate the de-carbonization of our sources of power quickly. Therefore, the only viable solution is to respect scientific experts, hoping for the development of greener energy innovations and, as long as it is a common shared solution, we shall act on it as a sole soul.
UN, “Ramp up nuclear power to beat climate change, says UN nuclear chief” (October 2019)
UNECE, “The role of nuclear power in Sustainable development”
Mariliis LehtveerFredrik Hedenus, “How much can nuclear power reduce climate mitigation cost? – Critical parameters and sensitivity” Physical Resource Theory, Chalmers University of Technology (2014)
World Nuclear News, “Nuclear can bring balance to climate debate, says EC official” (March 2021)
FORBES, “The World Needs Nuclear Power, And We Shouldn’t Be Afraid Of It” (October 2020)
Elisabetta is a Master Law graduate from the University of Bologna where she focused on European judicial cooperation and comparative law.
She currently is a Schuman Trainee at European Parliament working in Data Protection. She’s passionate about climate and environmental issues, as well as sustainable data – privacy compliance.