Nuclear power has been in an odd place for the last half-century. It is the 2nd most used source of clean energy, after hydroelectric, providing around 14% of humanity’s total electricity output. But the degree of controversy nuclear energy attracts is unparalleled by any other renewable fuel source. GreenPeace openly condemns its use, and American Green Party candidate Jill Stein has repeatedly taken to Twitter to condemn its use, referring to the power plants as “weapons of mass destruction”.
So why is it that so many environmentalists soundly reject what would seem to be one of the best ways to help transition away from fossil fuels? The answer boils down to two factors: the fear of catastrophic accidents like Chernobyl, and the risks associated with disposal of nuclear waste. These fears have been reflected in policy making throughout the world in the wake of Chernobyl.
I have spent most of my life living near Cincinnati, a city whose historical relationship with nuclear power is complex. In the 1980s, a nuclear plant in the city was 97% complete before inspectors deemed it unsafe, and it was converted into a coal plant. 20-some miles from that site, a rural stretch bordering Butler County to the north was converted into the Fernald Site, which leaked potentially deadly amounts of Uranium waste into the surrounding air and water. It would seem then, that Cincinnati residents should have little positive to say about nuclear energy. But that isn’t the whole story. My great-grandfather for instance, who spent over half a century as an engineer for Cincinnati Gas & Electric, was quite supportive of switching to nuclear, refusing to see any of Jane Fonda’s movies due to her public fear mongering about the topic. The fact that someone who spent their whole life working for a gas power company thought nuclear, even with all the risks carried, was a good option, shows how much potential for clean energy it promised.
It’s also worth noting that many fears may be misguided. The Chernobyl and Fukushima incidents both occurred at outdated power plants. A meltdown of the variety that happened in Ukraine is actually physically impossible in most modern plants. This renders Jill Stein’s claims misguided at best and dangerous at worst. The waste from plants, however does present a real issue, which factors into the overall problem with visions of a nuclear future: the pricetag.
If the world were to go entirely nuclear, how much effort would that take? Well, the world uses around 22 trillion kilowatts of power per year right now, and there are around 450 active plants providing about 10% of the world’s electricity. Therefore, we can arrive at a rough estimate of 4,500 plants needed to power the world. The most recent estimate I can find for the cost of opening a new plant is 7 billion, so building enough new plants to power the world would be an investment of about S1.5 trillion/year over 20 years. But the building costs aren’t the sole financial obstacle. There’s also the cost of safely storing the radioactive waste. 1 reactor produces around 12 cubic metres of high-level waste in a year, which can be 1-2 million dollars to safely dispose of. 4,500 nuclear power plants, then, would cost 9 billion every year in high grade waste disposal. Security costs for nuclear plants are also significant, though the exact numbers can vary.
The fact is, while nuclear power’s danger may be exaggerated, the costs of nuclear are very real. And unlike solar, which has seen drastic price reductions, nuclear power is currently more expensive that it was 20 years ago owing to insurance and security costs.
As a result, I see nuclear’s future, while certainly real, as limited in a way that solar, wind, and new ideas such as tidal and biofuel are not.