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Rediscovering the promise of nuclear power

Jun 25,2018 - Last updated at Jun 25,2018

OXFORD — At the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, world leaders at last seemed to recognise the reality of climate change. But the response they are pursuing is fundamentally flawed, given its dependence on “renewable energy sources”, such as solar, hydro and wind power, as well as biofuels, that actually damage nature. Ironically, the world’s best bet to achieve the Paris agreement’s goals is to rely on an energy source that is often demonised: Nuclear power.

Water, wind and solar power cannot reliably provide energy on the scale required for a modern economy. One kilogramme of water behind a dam that is 100 metres high can provide just 1/3,600 kilowatt hours of energy. One kilogram of coal, by contrast, provides about 7 kWh of energy, 20,000 times more.

A hydroelectric scheme would thus have to be enormous to generate the same amount of energy as a coal-fired equivalent, implying high environmental and human costs. To build the largest existing hydroelectric project, the Three Gorges reservoir on the Yangtze River, which stretches for 600 kilometres, 1.3 million people were relocated, as 13 cities, 140 towns and 1,350 villages were inundated.

Wind has a similar energy density. Even with their large and noisy turbines, offshore wind farms produce, at their peak, as little as nine megawatts per square kilometre. To match a one-gigawatt coal-fired plant requires several hundred turbines. The same goes for solar farms: To be competitive, they must be huge, covering vast areas of hillside and meadow.

Yet, even if these massive and environmentally damaging structures were installed, they would be unable to produce enough energy reliably. Articles touting the peak power generation of wind and solar often fail to mention that, for periods that sometimes last many days, they offer little to none. If excess energy could be stored efficiently, the lean periods might be covered; but improvements in battery technology are limited by the laws of chemistry.

A recent claim that renewable sources alone could supply all of the United States’ electricity needs has been discredited. To avoid blackouts, fully reliable back-up energy sources must be built and kept on stand by at a cost attributable to the fluctuating renewables.

Some argue that the answer is biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel, which benefit from subsidies in some places. But, among renewable-energy options, biofuels have the greatest environmental impact of all, because they require large areas of agricultural land and forest, yet fail to retain the carbon dioxide that nature captures so effectively.

Nuclear energy is the one carbon-free energy source without these environmental downsides. In fact, nuclear fuel has 100,000 times the energy density of coal, so that a one-gigawatt nuclear plant would require only 15 hectares of land. Smaller modular plants could blend unobtrusively into the landscape. Moreover, nuclear ores are widespread geographically, and the fuel is easily transported and stockpiled. And a nuclear plant, which can operate for 60 years, is more resilient to extreme weather than wind or solar plants.

Despite these advantages, countries around the world are refusing to invest in new nuclear plants and are even shutting down those that already exist. The reason lies in a lack of understanding of how we are exposed to radiation from nuclear processes, an integral part of nature, every day.

For three billion years, life has evolved not to be adversely affected by natural radiation from rocks and space. A century ago, Marie Curie received two Nobel Prizes for explaining the physics and chemistry of nuclear physics and radiation, before pioneering the use of high doses of radiation for cancer treatment.

Yet, while virtually everyone has a relative or friend who has benefited from radiotherapy, public attitudes towards nuclear energy and radiation never recovered from the shock of the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. But the long-term effects of the radiation released by those bombs have been greatly exaggerated.

True, up to 200,000 people may have died in the bombings and their immediate aftermath, but that was mainly from the blast and resulting firestorm. Few died of cancer. Indeed, the medical records of survivors indicate an extra 550-850 cancer deaths over 50 years.

It did not help that, during the Cold War, politicians and media exploited fear of radiation. Draconian safety regulations were enacted in the 1950s, not because evidence demanded it, but to appease an anxious public whose concerns were exacerbated by the nuclear-arms race between the US and the Soviet Union.

In 1986, the nuclear accident at Chernobyl seemed to confirm these fears, though the radiation death toll of that event was just 43. Likewise, although no one died from radiation released by the 2011 accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant, that episode was widely regarded as proof that countries should abandon nuclear power. The negative impact of Fukushima, including 1,600 deaths and severe economic and environmental damage, were the result of inept regulation and evacuation procedures. And what caused the accident in the first place was geology, not the pursuit of nuclear power.

The world must move beyond radiation phobia and accept more relaxed, evidence-based nuclear regulations. It is compliance with excessive regulations that makes nuclear power apparently expensive. What is required, above all, is the political will to challenge the status quo, in the name of smart and forward-thinking policy choices, and better education of the public, beginning with schoolchildren and higher investment in education.

Nuclear power may not be popular today, but it should be tomorrow. It is the best choice for our collective future. We should embrace it.

 

Wade Allison is emeritus professor of physics and fellow of Keble College at the University of Oxford and the author, most recently, of Nuclear is for Life: A Cultural Revolution. He is also honourary secretary of SONE (Supporters of Nuclear Energy). Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018. www.project-syndicate.org

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Comments

I agree absolutely with this article. The problem is that there isn't a Charles de Gaulle anymore with the power and foresight to solve our dire problem. Perhaps China will be able to step to leadership in helping to resolve the world-wide dilemma. I hear that they now have a full university training nuclear personnel. Another problem is ignorance of the physics and chemistry of climate change and the physics of nuclear technology.

Ignorance breeds irrational fear and total abhorrence of the nuclear solution. There are many 'greenies' pinning their hopes alas mistakenly
on a totally renewable climate solution. Their hopes will be dashed when the world finally wakes up too late that we are too far behind to effectively solve the climate change problem. Witness the world-wide climate catastrophe today. Nothing short of a paradigm change in our
daily outlook will do.

Thank you.

Sincerely,

Jonathan

Thank you for your article. As an engineering manager who has been responsible for both nuclear plant design and coal-fired power plant design/construction I agree that we need all of the carbon-free electricity sources we can build. A few years ago I did a simple calculation that showed that the U.S. could replace all of our fossil-fired power plants with nuclear plants and still have less than 1/2 the number of nuclear plants/sq mile that France has today. Any contribution from renewables would work to reduce the number of nuclear plants required. Polls consistently show that more than 50% of the public supports more nuclear plants. Those who claim that "the people" don't want nuclear energy are mistaken - to the detriment of our planet.

No one has ever run "whole cities" on intermittent renewable energy, the only possible exception being large hydro (but there is only a finite number of hydro sites, and those have been mostly tapped). Fossil fuel is always used when the sun isn't shining or the wind isn't blowing (i.e., most of the time).

We "just don't want it" is a valid reason to not do something, even if people can give no objective rationale for that opinion? The prize should go to whatever energy sources can run the most effective fear mongering, propaganda campaign (read: fossil fuel industry)?? As it would involve choosing energy sources that actually have a *greater* environmental impact (be it fossil or sprawling renewables with fossil backup), such a choice would amount to an environmental crime, as well as a crime against public health.

Preventing climate change means keeping fossil fuel waste, especially CO2, out of the atmosphere. Nuclear power accomplishes this by keeping fossil fuels in the ground. It's a nice method, but it has the side effect of depriving government of the subsidy it gets from fossil fuel consumers. So getting nuclear power plants built means fighting City Hall.

In English-speaking countries public opinion usually is majority in favour of nuclear power. Even in Japan, the electorate chooses the least anti-nuclear-power candidates it can.

Not convinced! While many have been successful in using renewable energy to run whole cities, isn’t it time to invest more in renewable energy and research? Time for pro nuclear activists to accept that we the people don’t want nuclear energy!

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