Balancing the nuclear argument

Welcome to Week 7 of Climate Change: Challenges and Solutions! This week, we’ve moved into some of the solutions to Climate Change and look at some of the social science behind climate mitigation and adaptation. In particular, focus has been on sustainable building design and how we generate energy sustainably. But one thing that wasn’t touched upon was generating energy from nuclear – there’s simply too much that can be squeezed into an 8-week course! In this blog post, I hope I can whet your apetite for a balanced review of nuclear energy as a feasible alternative to Climate Change. In keeping with the spirit of the course, all material you’re about to read has been peer-reviewed and is from reputable sources. I will also not arrive at a conclusion – that is for you to decide and let me know on the dicsussion boards!

Power generated from nuclear fission (fusion is still currently not possible), is a clean way of generating electricity 24/7 without producing harmful emissions alongside it – unlike other production methods, typically fossil fuels. The chimneys you’ll see at a nuclear plant are simply only producing water vapour. That’s not to say it is not completely without sin, as nuclear waste is still produced and can decay for hundreds of thousands of years. Furthermore, safety is still a major concern for residents nearby nuclear plants, given the catastrophic nature of accidents (in the extremely highly unlikely event they do occur). This website produces a very nice (balanced) summary of the introduction to nuclear energy. Interestingly, public perception of nuclear energy is very divided. In Britain, a survey found that:

“concern about climate change and energy security will only increase acceptance of nuclear power under limited circumstances—specifically once other (preferred) options have been exhausted.”

Corner et al,  2011

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Nothing to see – only steam comes from the giant cooling towers. Although the environmental effects of the concrete to produce them and the eye-sore they create has an arguably different environmental effect.

Arguments For

A landmark paper from Pacala and Socolow (2004) introduced the concept of ‘stabilisation wedges’ – what can we do to solve the climate crisis with the technology we’ve already got? Unsurprisingly, nuclear was an option – doubling the current (2004) capacity of nuclear plants would tackle a ‘stabilisation wedge’ (effectively 1/7th of the problem) and based on trajectories from the 1990s, this is enitrely possible. They suggest the only main barrier to nuclear energy is improving the public perception and safety.

Brook (2012) argues that to reach non-carbon energy generation by the end of the century, nuclear is essential. It would be so imperative in a non-carbon 2100 that it would be responsible for half of energy production. Improving the efficency of nuclear power plants means there is enough natural nuclear energy in the world to meet this demand and it could be built fast enough if more countries got on board. This requires a bit of global effort, as well as acceptance from individuals and changing societal perceptions. But, in theory, ‘there are no technical, economic or fuel-related limitations‘ for nuclear fission.

For a great video on arguments for nuclear, see this video on the benefits of nuclear power. It’s part of a series of videos on nuclear and I’ll link to the counterargument video below.

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Conceptual design of Hinkley Point C – a nuclear power plant under construction in Somerset, UK which has a designed life of 60 years.

Arguments Against

Sovacool and Cooper (2008) summarise a variety of arguments against nuclear energy in their paper, ‘Nuclear nonsense‘. This includes the high environmental cost of searching for, extracting and transporting uranium, ‘lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions‘, rising costs and safety issues. They also cite issues surrounding the disposal of environmental waste and how construction and operational costs for nuclear plants are higher than other forms of electricity production. This is a great (if long) plethora of citations criticising nuclear energy.

Interestingly, climate change may affect the ability for nuclear power plants to reach their full potential. Linnerud et al (2011) found that physical laws constraining the cooling of nuclear power plants means that ‘a rise in temperature of 1˚C reduces efficiency by 0.5%’. Droughts and heatwaves could affect production by 2% per degree rise in temperature and may cause shut down completely – such as during the August 2003 heatwave. In an increasingly warming world, the reliability of nuclear to provide a significant proportion of a nation’s electricity should be questioned. A key argument for not switching solely to solar is that it doesn’t cope with peak demands in the evening, but nuclear may also lead to blackouts that increase in frequency.

For a great summary on arguments against nuclear, including the use of nuclear as weapons with widespread use of the technology, check out this video. Don’t be put off by the title – it is credible and part of the same series as the ‘pros’ summary video.

Summary

Every energy source has a long list of pros and cons associated with it, and nuclear the same. This blog post isn’t to persuade you on anything – it’s to introduce you to some of the themes and some reputable sources of information. I strongly recommend you to continue your own research and to watch the short summary videos at the end of each section.

Finally, please let me know your thoughts! Would you use nuclear energy? Why? Let me know on the FutureLearn discussion boards or tweet me @LTaylor1995.

Liam

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