Jeanne Menjoulet

Nuclear power has generated a controversial debate. Proponents of this energy, such as the World Nuclear Association and Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy, contend that nuclear power is a safe, sustainable energy source that has the potential to reduce our carbon emissions. Opponents, such as Greenpeace and NIRS, argue that nuclear power poses many threats to people and the environment. To what extent is nuclear power a path towards decarbonisation?


The Facts – What Is Good And What Is Bad About Nuclear Energy

In short, nuclear energy is generated from splitting atoms in a reactor to heat water into steam, which then turns a turbine that produces electricity. Currently, the vast majority of electricity from nuclear power is produced by nuclear fission of uranium and plutonium, but other methods to generate nuclear power remain at the focus of international research. Because nuclear plants do not emit CO2, nuclear energy has been claimed to have great potential to reduce global warming.

The main advantage of using nuclear energy to power national grids is that it is relatively low-cost and consistently runs on its full potential. In addition, scarcity is not of concern, given that uranium, a primary reactor of the fuel source, is a relatively abundant element in the earth’s crust. For this reason, and because nuclear energy does not produce negative carbon externalities as a by-product, nuclear power is widely regarded as an alternative to fossil fuels and a feasible way to reduce carbon emissions.

However, the benefits of nuclear power do not come without disadvantages and risks. Historically, nuclear plants have had two main problems. Firstly, they produce radioactive nuclear waste. Secondly, they can be vulnerable to a disaster like nuclear meltdowns, such as the ones experienced in Fukushima or Chernobyl. Moreover, the fuel used is toxic and can only stay in its reactor for a limited amount of time before it starts to break itself down to produce energy. In our current plants, only  4% of the energy is extracted from the uranium, leaving the residual 96% as waste. This fact has not been ignored by environmental groups, which have long taken aim at the radioactive waste and perceived risks of nuclear power plants.


Political Implications and the “All-Natural Fallacy”

Political perceptions about nuclear power should not be overlooked. Generally, there is a negative political perception associated with nuclear plants and nuclear weapons, which makes expansive growth of nuclear energy difficult to accomplish. These suspicions are backed up by major past events such as Chernobyl or Fukushima. Many fear that nuclear power plants may be targeted by terrorist organisations since some components used on the production of energy could be reused as bombs and other weapons. And safety is key when deciding over our energy provider: if things go wrong at a nuclear plant, due to accidents, terrorists or nature, the damage caused can cripple entire cities and systems. Whether this is likely or not, we cannot really know. But what we know is that effects of a catastrophe in a nuclear plant contrast with those in a solar or wind farm.

Proponents of nuclear power often blame the natural appeal of renewables – the so-called “appeal-to-nature fallacy”. In short, this refers to the belief that things are either “natural” or “unnatural”, the former being better, safer, or cleaner than the latter. Good examples of this fallacy are found on the labels of food, clothing and herbal remedies. These labels may claim the product to be “all-natural”, suggesting its environmentally-friendly and safety, but whether or not a product is “natural”, is in reality, irrelevant in determining its safety or effectiveness.


The Economics of Nuclear Power

The economics of new nuclear power plants is a controversial topic, since there are diverging views on the issue, and multibillion-investments depend on the choice of an energy source. Nuclear power plants typically have low fuel costs, but a high level of capital: plants need to hire highly skilled workers to build, maintain and monitor the operations in order to ensure the safety and process of the plant. Moreover, costs faced to build new plants are significant as well. Comparison with other power generation methods is greatly dependent on assumptions about construction timescales, capital financing for nuclear plants and the future costs and development of fossil fuels and renewables. For that matter, measures to mitigate global warming, such as a carbon tax or carbon emissions trading, may favour the economics of nuclear power, but investment incentives are still vague.

Nuclear energy is in a very challenging position. At the moment, solar or wind energies are becoming cheaper than nuclear power, so there are few incentives to build more power plants. And because incentives are low, suppliers are likely to leave the market and establish somewhere where plants are being constructed, such as China.


Renewables vs. Nuclear…

If you ever thought that the perceptions of society do not affect the choices taken by governments (“they all just care about the money, not about us!”), you probably never thought about nuclear power. Take as an example the United States: despite the fact that subsidies to fossil fuels and nuclear power greatly surpass those aimed at renewable energies, renewables produced 20.17% of country’s electricity during the first half of 2018, while nuclear produced 20.14% (U.S.’ Energy Information Administration). The difference is slight, but key.

Take as well the example of China. With their position as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the country is taking multiple steps to improve its pollution problem. China has already set a target of ensuring its still-growing emissions peak by 2030. To achieve this goal, the country is using a combination of approaches including renewable energy sources, nuclear energy and an emissions trading system. What is interesting about this case is that, despite being one of the most aggressive countries in their nuclear ambitions, China is building renewables even faster. Renewable generation is outpacing nuclear!

Ultimately, energy choices are made by utilities and consumers – they are the ones choosing renewables. Utilities are purchasing wholesale power cheaper from renewables than from coal, nuclear and sometimes even cheaper than from gas.


… or Renewables AND Nuclear

Why not build nuclear and renewables? Despite general doubts concerning the use of both energies, nuclear and renewables can be built together to foster decarbonisation. In fact, if we are to transition from fossil fuels, it is important to note that during this transition, existing nuclear power plants are needed. Assumed that they keep operating safely, they will continue to help offset fossil fuel use. The ability of nuclear plants to provide electricity 24 hours a day contrasts with the intermittent production of wind and solar energy (e.g. the production of solar energy is higher during the day, when the sun is shining. Fun fact, this creates the phenomenon of the so-called “duck curve”). In addition, nuclear is also considered to be more readily dispatchable than wind and solar are.

Nevertheless, a “renewables-only” approach can also work, technically and economically. Hydroelectricity, as well as solar thermal with molten storage, biogas, biomass and geothermal, are all examples of renewable power that provide baseload sources of energy, thus allowing a more stable load to our grids. Furthermore, prices for energy storage (particularly for the intermittent production of solar and wind) are dropping and new methods are being explored. If we can control and store all energy coming from renewable sources, we might be seeing a cleaner future a little closer.