As a result of several catastrophes surrounding nuclear power, public skepticism of nuclear energy has increased greatly and prompted some countries to take drastic action in reducing their dependency on nuclear power (BBC News 2011; Brunken and Mischinger et al. 2020). In light of this skepticism, as well as the fact that coal continues to account for the largest single share of humanity’s year-to-year increases in energy demand, it is reasonable to take a closer look at nuclear energy (Olivier and Peters 2019).
Humans are inherently fallible, and any technology designed by humans shares this characteristic. While undoubtedly deserving of caution, several high-profile nuclear disasters, most notably the reactor meltdowns in Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011, have prompted an underlying aversion towards nuclear power which is no longer aligned with the technology’s true risks. An OECD report by the Nuclear Energy Agency assessing the aftereffects of Chernobyl found that 31 people died directly as a consequence of the accident, with an additional 140 suffering various degrees of radiation sickness. These effects were observed exclusively among the emergency personnel who were directly involved with the accident; no members of the public suffered these types of effects (2002). Looking at cancer incidence in the region, the report concludes that while there has been a real and significant increase in thyroid cancer among children and infants exposed at the time of the accident, no observable increase in other cancers, leukemia, congenital abnormalities, adverse pregnancy outcomes, or any other radiation-induced disease has been observed (OECD Nuclear Energy Agency 2002). While estimating deaths resulting from complex mechanisms like radiation exposure over large areas is notoriously complex, an international team of more than 100 scientists commissioned by the World Health Organization (WHO) has estimated that “up to 4,000 people could eventually die of radiation exposure from the Chernobyl” disaster (World Health Organization 2005). The most extreme estimates come from studies commissioned by the European Green Party and place the projected number of cancer deaths at between 30,000 and 60,000 (Fairlie and Sumner 2006). Looking at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, a UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation concluded that no one had died from radiation exposure resulting from the disaster, and that “substantial changes in future cancer statistics attributed to radiation exposure are not expected” (Reich and Goto 2015: 498). A WHO Health Risk Assessment report corroborates these findings, stating that radiation levels in the Fukushima prefecture itself were well below levels at which any health effects associated with radiation are known to occur, with no risks towards fetal development or pregnancy (2013).
In wake of Fukushima, public anxiety towards the dangers associated with nuclear energy manifested itself in the form of protests across Europe. In Germany, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest against nuclear power, with over 100,000 in Berlin alone (BBC News 2011). In response, the German Bundestag was swift to pass an unprecedented plan to completely phase out nuclear energy in Germany within 11 years, with over 80% of members voting in favor (Germany’s Nuclear Phaseout Explained 2017). The plan committed the country to a complete phase-out of nuclear energy by 2022, while providing for continued coal-fired energy generation through 2038 (Brunken and Mischinger et al. 2020). Similar movements spanning Switzerland, Italy, and Belgium thereby implicitly allow a higher share of fossil fuel power generation to compensate for a reduced share of nuclear power, resulting in an overall increase in emission intensity (Hong and Bradshaw et al. 2015). A similar narrative unfolded in Japan. In the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, when it became clear that several nuclear plants would remain offline, Japan increasingly switched to coal-fired energy generation, and “the government is aiming for coal to provide a quarter of electricity generation by 2030” (Olivier and Peters 2019: 54). These are by no means isolated phenomena, as coal consumption, in particular, continues to increase against a backdrop of safety concerns related to nuclear power; prior to the COVID-19 Pandemic, the world has set a new all-time high for global energy consumption for 10-years running, driven primarily by China’s rapid industrialization. And China’s emissions are unlikely to peak soon, with plans to increase its coal-fired power generation by 290 GW, some 29% above current levels (Rapier 2020; Olivier and Peters 2019). In another major developing economy, India, coal-based energy generation covers almost two-thirds of the annual increase in energy demand, with just 32% provided by renewable energy sources; Nuclear power covers just 2% of the increased demand (Olivier and Peters 2019). India’s total coal and oil consumption increased by roughly 50% between 2010 and 2018 and a rise in global CO2 emissions over the past several years can be largely attributed to an increase in coal consumption (Olivier and Peters 2019).
Alternatives to nuclear power, such as coal are associated with vastly larger public health risks; despite this, coal appears to be the accepted substitute to a globally declining share of nuclear power (Olivier and Peters 2019). A WHO report concludes that ambient air pollution accounts for roughly “4.2 million deaths per year due to stroke, heart disease, lung cancer and chronic respiratory diseases”, and around 91% of the world’s population lives in places where air quality levels exceed WHO limits (Ambient Air Pollution 2021). In Germany alone, the phase-out of nuclear energy is estimated to cost roughly $12 billion per year, with the majority of this cost attributed to the 1,100 additional annual deaths resulting from local air pollution as a result of coal-fired power plants operating in place of clean-air nuclear sources of power; these estimates far exceed even the most optimistic projections on the benefit of a nuclear phase-out (Jarvis and Deschenes et al. 2019). A study conducted through the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia University’s Earth Institute estimated that globally, between 1971 and 2009, nuclear power prevented the deaths of some 1.84 million people with an average of 76,000 deaths prevented every year (Kharecha and Hansen 2013). Among all modern low-carbon energy sources including nuclear, hydropower is, in fact, the most dangerous in terms of human fatalities, accounting for more than 97% of all deaths; this is primarily the result of a major accident in 1975, during which the Shimantan Hydroelectric Facility in China failed catastrophically, leading to 171,000 deaths and more than $9 billion in property damage (Sovacool and Andersen et al. 2016). Normalizing fatalities to energy generation shows that “current nuclear power plants are safer than most other energy systems including fossil fuels” as coal is responsible for at least 16 times as many total deaths per unit of electricity compared to nuclear (Hong and Brashaw et al. 2015: 457).
Like nuclear disasters, nuclear waste is a safety concern. While nuclear waste certainly carries with it inherent risks and needs to be treated seriously, the issue of nuclear waste does not seem to be the most important factor when it comes to public disapproval of nuclear power. In a 2008 poll conducted by the European Commission, a relative majority stated they would remain opposed to nuclear power “irrespective of whether solutions for the safe storage and management of nuclear waste” were found (European Commission 2008: 11). Furthermore, nuclear energy is the only source of energy whose harmful byproducts are fully regulated, and whose waste is entirely costed into the final product (World Nuclear Association 2021). This is not the case with other fossil-fuel-based energy carriers despite the substantially higher risks associated with harmful emissions as outlined previously.
Nuclear waste describes many byproducts of nuclear energy generation, most of which pose no danger to humans. Nuclear waste is classified into three levels according to its radioactivity; low-level waste (LLW) comprises 90% of the volume of all generated waste but accounts for just 1% of the radioactivity. It consists of items such as paper, rags, tools, or clothing that contain small amounts of short-lived radioactivity. This type of waste is often incinerated, does not require shielding during handling, and can be stored in near-surface facilities (World Nuclear Association 2021). Intermediate-level waste (ILW) makes up another 7% of the volume, accounting for 4% of the total radioactivity, and includes resins, contaminated materials, and metal fuel cladding. Despite ILW being more radioactive than LLW, it generates negligible levels of heat, although it does require some form of shielding (World Nuclear Association 2021). This means that 97% of all nuclear waste by volume can be handled quite efficiently. As a result of the fact that nuclear fuel is approximately 1 million times more dense than traditional fuels, the absolute amount of high-level waste (HLW) in the form of used nuclear fuel by volume is quite small (US Department of Energy 2021). As a point of reference, all the used nuclear fuel produced by US nuclear power plants over the past 60 years amounts to around 49,000 cubic meters or a soccer field at a depth of fewer than 7 meters (US Department of Energy 2021). The extremely high energy density of nuclear fuel when compared with conventional sources of energy is an important distinguishing factor when it comes to nuclear power. One 2,5cm tall Uranium pellet has the energy equivalent of over 480 cubic meters of natural gas, over 450 Liters of oil, and around one ton of coal; nuclear energy in the United States alone produces enough carbon-neutral electricity to power 75 million homes, thereby avoiding the emissions of nearly 471 million metric tons of CO2 per year, equivalent to taking nearly 100 million passenger vehicles off the road (US Department of Energy 2021; Nuclear Energy Institute 2021). To handle this HLW, the international consensus is that technically proven geological storage is a safe means of disposing of radioactive byproducts and ensuring that this waste is isolated from humans and the environment (World Nuclear Association 2021; Swiss Federal Nuclear Safety Inspectorate 2021).
There are also further ways to reduce the amount of nuclear waste. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) estimates that while the total amount of used fuel worldwide adds up to approximately 370,000 tonnes, one-third of this has been processed. Reprocessing allows for a significant amount of the plutonium to be recovered from the used fuel which is then processed to make new fuel, allowing for 25-30% more energy to be extracted from the original uranium core, and reducing the amount of HLW by around 85% (World Nuclear Association 2021). In addition, a new generation of nuclear reactors is being developed to operate on used fuel (US Department of Energy 2021). However, the investments and economies of scale necessary to facilitate these promising technological improvements, are jeopardized by a high degree of uncertainty on future projections of nuclear power, as its deployment is heavily constrained by societal preferences (Rogelj and Shindell et al. 2018).
Public skepticism of this technology, coupled with measures such as a moratorium on the construction of new plants, as well as complete nuclear exit strategies like the one in Germany are increasing the dependence of nuclear power on older reactor designs, limiting the research and development potential that could increase both the safety and effectiveness of this clean-air source of power generation and indirectly increasing humanity’s dependence on fossil fuels.
Nevertheless, it is important to dedicate greater resources to the research and development of new technologies which both increase the utility of nuclear power and continue to improve its safety. Studies conducted by the IEA on the ramifications of a low-nuclear scenario, in which the global nuclear energy output in 2050 is 60% lower than the projected necessary expansion, indicate that the burden of replacing this low-carbon energy would fall primarily to wind and solar, necessitating some 2,400 GW of additional capacity beyond what is already required to reach net-zero emissions by 2050; an amount far exceeding the entire worldwide installed capacity of wind and solar in 2020 (Bouckaert and Pales et al. 2021). Concretely, this would cost an additional 2 trillion dollars in power plants and related grid assets (Bouckaert and Pales et al. 2021). In the meantime, a steadfast reliance on fossil fuel sources of energy continues to contribute directly to the warming of the earth’s atmosphere. As the planet is faced with wildfires of ever-increasing intensity, what was previously a once-in-500-year weather system become regular occurrences and global demand for energy shows little sign of slowing down, one would be well justified to question this trade-off and give greater consideration to a CO2-neutral, proven, and scalable source of energy which can accelerate the global transition away from fossil fuels.
Germany stages anti-nuclear marches after Fukushima (2011): BBC News. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-12872339 (Accessed: 7 September 2021).
Brunken, E. et al. (2020) ‘dena-Studie Systemsicherheit 2050: Systemdienstleistungen und Aspekte der Stabilität im zukünftigen Stromsystem’ (Accessed: 3 August 2021).
Olivier, J.G.J. and Peters, J.A.H.W. (2019) ‘Trends in global CO2 and total greenhouse gas emissions’, PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. Available at: https://www.pbl.nl/sites/default/files/downloads/pbl-2020-trends-in-global-co2-and-total-greenhouse-gas-emissions-2019-report_4068.pdf (Accessed: 4 August 2021).
OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (2002) ‘Chernobyl: Assessment of Radiological and Health Impacts – 2002 Update of Chernobyl: Ten Years On’, Nuclear Energy Agency. Available at: https://www.oecd-nea.org/jcms/pl_13598 (Accessed: 22 August 2021).
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