The nuclear energy debate has long been a bane of politicians. Some energy experts consider nuclear power as the great alternative energy source next to fossil fuels; whereas, environmentalists, though they embrace the green footprint, remain wary about the practice’s overall safety. Even global leaders are split. President Donald Trump hopes to expand nuclear power and the nation’s energy supply—though this expansion certainly curtails some of nuclear power’s benefits when he also hopes to expand fracking and oil drilling. Contrarily, in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel completely halted the production of nuclear energy and instituted the Energiewende, which will close all nuclear plants.
Before digging into the pros and cons of nuclear energy, what is it? Put simply: nuclear energy is the energy that results when the nuclear of an atom is split into two different, lighter elements. During this process, its mass is converted into energy that can subsequently supply electricity. Right now, 11 percent of the world’s electricity derives from this process.
So why is it such a point of contention?
The most obvious benefit to nuclear energy is that it produces way fewer greenhouse emissions for an energy that’s more efficient and sustainable than fossil fuels. As of right now, coal creates about 40% of global carbon emissions. If countries replaced these power plants with safe nuclear reactors, a lot of the world’s pollution could be eliminated immediately.
Let’s look at France for example, who has saw the speediest drop in greenhouse gas pollution in the 1970s and 1980s, when the country transition from burning fossil fuels to nuclear fission for electricity. During that stretch, the country lowered is greenhouse emissions by 2 percent per year. 2-fucking-percent.
Did you know if the world reduced its greenhouse emissions by a mere 6 percent it could stave off “dangerous” climate change?
Today, France derives about 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear energy, and they’re also the world’s biggest exporter of electricity—yes, the country profits $3.2 billion annually by selling its electricity. Right now, China’s the biggest investor in nuclear technologies, and, by no coincidence, they’re among the most ardent advocates in stopping global warming. On a global scale, it’s difficult to imagine how climate change could be curbed without the help of nuclear energy.
So why does Germany hate nuclear power? Surely, Chancellor Angela Merkel, a physicist by training, making her arguably the most qualified world leader to opine nuclear power, would support the practice, right? Wrong. And it’s out of fear for the potential dangers and instability of the atomkraft.
In the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, Mrs. Merkel u-turned on a 2010 policy that sought a continuation of Germany’s nuclear industry. “After what was, for me anyway, an unimaginable disaster in Fukushima, we have had to reconsider the role of nuclear energy,” she said in a conference following the disaster. At the time, though, 70 percent of Germans had already disapproved of the country’s insistence on nuclear energy, and in 2002 the Energiewende had already begun.
Nuclear energy may reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, but at what cost? Accidents happen, and an accident at a nuclear facility lasts literally generations. Just look at the incident in Chernobyl in which, thirty-years later, areas are still contaminated with nuclear waste, locals are still getting cancer. In Japan, a similar portrait exists, and scientists still don’t know the future ecological impact the accident will have, but they project it’ll last for hundreds of years.
As if accidents aren’t enough of a concern, there’s also the issue of Plutonium deposits—the end product of reprocessing spent fuel—getting stolen. And what can be made with Plutonium? Nuclear bombs.
Is nuclear power worth this risk?
At the current rate consumption, there’s enough uranium to last another 90 years, which suggests that nuclear power can buy time to curb global warming almost immediately, ensure some form of energy security, and also buy time until there’s a better solution to combat climate change.
Perhaps more relevant is that, once implemented, nuclear power plants can provide enough needed energy, without interruption—unlike wind and solar which depend on weather—for at least a year. Furthermore, these plants can also store energy for future use and also, like the French, use it for economic gain. It’s persistent supply and such supply will last significantly longer than that of fossil fuels used in the same capacity.
It’s like patching up a tent with duct tape. Eventually, water’s going to seep though, except, in this case, the water is rising sea levels and the tent is your home. There are a few reasons many physicists think nuclear energy simply won’t work:
Not enough land
One plant requires about eight square miles of space. Reactors also need to be located near a massive body of coolant water but also far away from dense populations and natural disaster zones. Oh, and, to supply the world, there will have to be 15,000 of those locations.
Not enough time
Every nuclear power station needs to be decommissioned after 50-odd years due to neutron embrittlement. If nuclear stations need replacing every 50 years, and the world needs 15,000 power stations, one station would need to be built and another decommissioned somewhere in the world just about every day. Also, as a side note, it currently takes around six years to build just one nuclear station and another twenty years to decommission
What the Hell should we do with the waste?
Nuclear technology has existed for roughly 60 years and there’s still no solution of disposal. Should we continue burying it? But then that could lead to radioactive leakage into the groundwater or to accidents like this one. There’s no real, safe way to eliminate waste outside of blasting it off into space somewhere beyond Pluto.
Image: Bjoern Schwarz, CC-BY
Tom Burson is a travel writer, part-time hitchhiker, and he’s currently trying to imitate Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? but with more sunscreen and jorts.