With all its cons and pros, at this time, nuclear power remains our best shot at decarbonizing the planet and ridding the world of its dependence of fossil fuel. During the 60s and 70s, many of the world’s governments, including France, the US or the USSR embarked on ambitious projects to electrify their nations using nuclear power. Accidents like those at Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986) or Fukushima (2011) served to halt this rapid pace of deployment and even shift policy back to massive fossil fuel deployment. Anti-nuclear power public sentiment did little to help, of course. Considering that the combined power of solar, wind and hydropower can’t yet rid us of pesky oil and gas, wouldn’t it be better if we embraced nuclear nevertheless, with all its shortcoming (many of which have been addressed by modern technology)? Two researchers wondered if the world was to hypothetically shift in high nuclear gear, how long would it take to completely shelve fossil. Their analysis showed if we built nuclear power plants at the rate Sweden had between 1960-1990, this target would be reached within 25 years.
Staffan Qvist, a physicist at Uppsala University in Sweden, and Barry Brook, a Professor of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania analyzed the rate of nuclear power development in two of the countries which have been most successful: France and Sweden. In 1974, on the heels of the oil crisis of 1973, French Prime Minister Pierre Messmer announced a plan that would come to be named after him. The slogan of the campaign defined their goals: “all-electric, all-nuclear” (tout-éléctrique, tout-nucléaire). Over the next 15 years France installed 56 nuclear reactors, satisfying its power needs (75% comes from nuclear) and even exporting electricity to other European countries. In the 1960s, Sweden undertook a similar process and by 1986, half of the country’s power came from nuclear, CO2 emissions per capita fell 75% from the peak in 1970, and energy costs were among the lowest in the world.
Qvist and Brook estimate that if the world built power plants at the rate Sweden had 40 years ago, all coal and natural gas power plants could be phased out in 25 years. If France’s pace is considered, it would take 34 years.
“Continued nuclear build-out at this demonstrably modest rate, coupled with an electrification of the transportation systems (electric cars, increased high-speed rail use etc.) could reduce global CO2 emissions by ~70% well before 2050,” they write in PLOS ONE.
Now, it’s likely that this sort of analysis is not foreign to energy policy makers, politicians, not to say nuclear engineers. So, why isn’t the world covered in nuclear power plants? Well, there are a lot of reasons, but if I’m to list the key arguments they’d be: 1) lack of public support (people are afraid of nuclear energy, because mushroom clouds and whatnot; a nuclear power plant doesn’t explode in a mushroom cloud like an A-bomb, I need to clarify) 2) they’re expensive (a nuclear power plant can costs billions; this sort of capital is hard to come by) 3) there aren’t enough specialists (even if we had 1,000 nuclear power plants appear out of thin air, there wouldn’t be enough people to man them) 4) they take a long time to make (parts, like reactor vessels, cooling components and so on are difficult to make and often there’s a single supplier in the whole world for a key nuclear power plant item – if you want a plant built, you need to queue in line).
So, instead of building more nuclear, we’re actually seeing these shutting down. France aims to reduce the share of nuclear by 25 percent (from 75 to 50 percent) by 2025, with an estimated 22 nuclear plants needing to be closed. A number of these nuclear plants were built at the beginning of the 1980s or earlier, making them around 40 years old – ready to be shut down anyway if their commissions are not going to be extended further. These are old plants – they should be decommissioned since they represent a potential hazard, but at the same time they should be replaced by modern plants. There are plenty of good reasons:
- it’s the cheapest form of energy;
- modern reactors are safe, since they involve minimal human intervention and automated safety mechanisms. There’s a backup for the backup – actually quite a few.
- nuclear waste is a problem, but so is any waste! Don’t be ridiculous. Consider, at least, that nuclear waste is manageable. A coal plant spews all its waste into the atmosphere which then costs not in terms of storage but in terms of global warming – you can’t control that.
- it saves lives: nuclear energy has prevented some 1.8 million air pollution-related deaths globally and could save millions of more lives in coming decades, concludes a study. A nuclear power plant is 4000 times safer than coal plants, as confirmed by NASA.
- More in my previous piece I wrote for ZME Science, defending nuclear power.
Let’s not kid ourselves. If the world is ever to avert an environmental catastrophe, like more than 4 degrees Celsius warming by 2100 consequence of burning fossil fuels, our only chance is to massively deploy renewable energy or build nuclear power plants – a lot of them. The latter is actually feasible, and has the best chance of success. It doesn’t have to be forever either. It’s a transition phase, until nuclear fusion or a definitely successful renewable energy/storage combo. You might argue against nuclear power, but let’s not forget you’re likely reading this article using a computer powered by electricity from a coal-powered plant; the kind that kills millions each year.
“Replacement of current fossil fuel electricity by nuclear fission at a pace which might limit the more severe effects of climate change is technologically and industrially possible—whether this will in fact happen depends primarily on political will, strategic economic planning, and public acceptance,” the authors conclude.