The Development of Nuclear Power as Green Energy & Its Implications
"I really think it's possible to make very, extremely safe nuclear." -Elon Musk, Tesla CEO
This quote was Elon Musk’s response to the development of nuclear plants as a form of green energy. Many experts disagree with the statement and cite such a mindset as dangerous and likely to have adverse consequences. Moreover, these critics cite his statement as contradicting numerous treaties, such as the famous Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty, which made remarkable efforts to get countries to stop producing nuclear power. However, a leaked report from the European Commission suggests this prospect may be possible. Disseminated on December 31, the report indicates nuclear energy, previously condemned as treacherous, is now being seriously considered in legislative branches worldwide.
Nuclear Reactor at Hinckley Point, UK. Photo Credits: Euractiv
Legislative branches are contemplating adopting the aforementioned legislation because many experts believe that nuclear power is the only way in which we will be able to achieve our targets concerning limiting global warming; specifically the aim to restrict it to below 2 degrees Celsius to pre-industrial levels. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has proclaimed that by 2050, at least 80% of the world's energy must be low carbon to achieve the goal and experts claim that renewable energy will not suffice. "You can't significantly reduce carbon emissions without nuclear power, " states Tennessee Valley Authority President, Jeff Lyash; the argumentation behind is that even with the maximization of hydropower, geothermal, both on and offshore wind power, and solar power, the goal of zero carbon emissions will still not have been reached without nuclear energy. Furthermore, experts on climate change further support labeling nuclear as green because it will aid our fight against global warming significantly in the long term either way. Even without taking into consideration the urgent need to maintain climate change to the 2 degrees, according to the IPPC, nuclear power produces 3-4 times less CO2 than solar power.
Nuclear Power Plant in Avila Beach, CA. Photo Credits: Michael Mariant/AP File Photo
Nevertheless, albeit the existence of numerous advocates in favor of such a measure, there is also stark opposition to the proposed measures. Such interventions are based on three main concerns. The first has to do with an intrinsic disagreement over the "greenness" of nuclear power, while the subsequent two are safety concerns and implications that naming it as such will have.
To begin with, there seems to be a controversy over nuclear energy's ability to bring about zero carbon emissions. The main opposition to the "greenness" of nuclear energy is due to the nuclear waste, as there is no permanent solution found to contain it permanently. Some of the waste chemicals of existing nuclear reactors that cannot be reutilized are being vitrified into a glass through heating. However, this is not considered a long-term solution, as the amount of waste that these glasses can contain is severely limited, making the process of containing all the waste in them extremely time-consuming and substantially expensive. Thus, as an environmentalist puts it, "nowhere in the world has anyone managed to create a place where we can bury extremely nasty nuclear waste forever."
In addition, opponents to the environmental friendliness of nuclear power also point out the implications of the enormous portions of water needed to cool down nuclear reactors. According to the Electric Power Research Institute, compared to gas, which requires 700 to 1,200 liters of water per MWh, nuclear reactors require between 1,514 and 2,725 liters of water to be cooled down. And not only is this ecologically unfriendly because of the excessive water used for cooling but also because the water that has been used can damage other ecosystems; as water is taken from various sources such as rivers, lakes, and oceans and then ultimately poured back into the body of water from whence it originated at extremely high temperatures, this can raise the temperature of the natural water supply by up to 30 degrees, endangering aquatic life.
But despite the debate on whether nuclear power is green, most legislation critics see a more salient issue at stake: civil security.
The first issue with nuclear energy and its impact on civil security regards the incompetency of nuclear technology in the industry. While most people are aware of substantial nuclear technology disasters, such as Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011, not many know that nuclear accidents have been as recent as in 2019 in Russia. The fact that many experts warn at the inadequacy of advances in the nuclear industry raises massive concern for the people neighboring near the established reactors. Despite these concerns, however, organizations have supported the measure and have attempted to reassure the public over the safety of nuclear power; "If you ever visit a nuclear plant, you will immediately see the industry's commitment to safety.", writes NEI, the Nuclear Energy Institute of Washington DC. They cite their implementation of a "defense-in-depth" to support their claim, which is an establishment of overlapping levels of safety that they use to prevent accidental radiation release. They claim that security concerns are irrelevant due to the numerous precautions taken.
It is also worth noting that these concerns over the nuclear industry's safety have been heightened due to the excessive economic resources that the development of nuclear energy needs. Because of the fact above, there is a common concern that companies will try to create cost shortcuts to reduce them as much as possible. An example in which a similar situation had arisen in the past was with the company's Equifax data, when there was a leakage of them due to the company purposely not updating their program due to the high level of costs doing so would have. Only in the case of nuclear power, such irresponsibility overspending the damage will not just be the reputation of a company; it will be long-lasting health damage to thousands of people.
The second security aspect concerns a side effect that developing nuclear power for electricity will have, namely, making it easier for nations to use this power to develop nuclear weaponry. 2022 may have just begun, but it has already illustrated how governments are not always transparent in how they internally handle specific issues. For example, it was just at the end of 2021 when it was discovered that the usage of "Pegasus spyware" by the Israeli government to spy on journalists and activists was used by the CIA and FBI; and that is even though the US government was ostensibly one of the most potent forces mobilized against Pegasus. Thus, if states are given the okay for developing nuclear power, no one can be certain of how it will be used, despite the government's assertions -as sustainability in this case. "It's a supposedly low carbon source of energy, but you've got to build the reactors . . . it is such a dangerous and destructive solution", said a campaigner in a marching protest against the Bure site, one of the most.
Part of the answer to whether the plans of the European Commission will take hold, will come from how the European Union will handle the issue; namely, if it will introduce a mandatory bill concerning the usage of it, or not. For now, it seems that nuclear energy usage will not be mandated. Despite the European Commission's aim to identify nuclear power as sustainable, Enel Green Power - an Italian company -has no plans to invest. Moreover, countries in the heart of the European Union, such as Germany, have been firmly opposed to such actions. On the other hand, however, France has welcomed the potential of such legislation by declaring plans to construct up to fourteen reactors by 2050. And with the IPCC reporting the worst climate change findings in history in the beginning of 2022, what is going to happen concerning the issue is significantly unclear.