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You Can’t Be Pro-Environment If You Are Anti-Nuclear

Updated: Dec 2, 2022

Across the majority of the world, it is acknowledged that we have a global emergency - the Climate Crisis.

CO2 emissions due to human activity increase temperatures worldwide, creating irreversible damage to our ecosystems with ice already starting to melt in polar and mountain regions. If no action is taken, large cities such as Rio de Janeiro, Shanghai and New York will be underwater within our lifetime.

Climate change also limits the amount of water for drinking or agriculture. Climate change is also a direct cause of soil degradation, limiting the amount of carbon the earth can contain. Areas that suffer from soil degradation results in around 30% of food being lost or wasted. Food and water security are being affected as a result.

As the world warms, climate and weather extremes are becoming more frequent and intense and now account for 90% of disasters across the globe. These disasters push 26 million people into poverty and cost the world economy $520 billion every year.

The above effects of climate change fuel socio-economic tensions, which cause security and peace threats across the globe. With more of the world experiencing draughts, further competition for food, water, energy, and land will only intensify these tensions.

Nuclear Energy and Climate Change
Photo credit: @li_anlim at Unsplash

Why is nuclear hitting the headlines?

CO2 emissions continue to increase temperatures worldwide, resulting in rising sea levels, creating food and water shortages, increasing weather extremes, and increasing the risk of conflict across the globe.

We need to reduce CO2 emissions across the globe with increased considerations about how we grow food, use land, transport goods, and power our economies.

It is easy to see why much focus is being put on low carbon sources of electricity generation. Billions of tons of CO2 are released into the atmosphere every year due to coal, oil, and gas production. Hence, the resurgence of the popularity of nuclear energy.

Once operating, a nuclear power plant generates electricity 24 hours a day without emitting any CO2. Hence, we have started to see nuclear energy making the headlines of late as the need to find a baseload of clean energy to replace our reliance on coal, oil and gas increases.

So, that’s it. Panic over? We have a solution.

Well, not really. Nuclear energy isn’t a foregone conclusion - not from the government’s standpoint and the general public approval anyway.

There have been several nuclear disasters - most notably Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima.

The first two of these have been dramatised as part of two recent TV series that have not helped improve the perception of nuclear energy and the dangers associated with the technology.

However, the nuclear industry cannot solely blame these dramatisations. The industry has been very closed, covert and uncommunicative in the past, not helping to dispel any myths associated with the technology but, in fact, adding fuel to the fire.

Let’s consider the most recent incident at Fukushima in Japan in 2011. When an earthquake hit the plant, it was automatically shut down with any nuclear chain reaction stopped within seconds. However, the generator responsible for cooling the reactor was damaged when a subsequent tsunami hit the plant.

The reactor had only recently been shut down, and without any cooling water, the reactor components were hot enough to melt the reactor core literally. This resulted in several chemical explosions and the release of radioactivity into the atmosphere.

Nobody died directly from the incident, but seven years later, one worker died of lung cancer attributed to radiation exposure. Some 2,000 deaths have been linked to the stress of the evacuation of the surrounding area due to the radiation leak.

Not good reading. And understandably, people have concerns about the continued and proposed technology increase.

Let’s Put Nuclear Energy Into Perspective

The loss of one single life is tragic. It is never pleasant to compare anything based on the number of deaths incurred, but this is what the media and other anti-nuclear content forces us to make a like-for-like comparison.

Have there been deaths associated with the use of nuclear energy? Unfortunately, Yes. Let’s not shy away from that fact but acknowledge the lessons learned from the nuclear industry’s history and compare the alternatives.

Nuclear GHG emissions vs fossil fuels
Credit: Harvard University

The burning of fossil fuels adds to air pollution, which, according to the World Health Organisation, accounts for 7 million deaths annually.

I’m going to say that again, outside of the previously mentioned global warming, food and water shortages, natural disasters and socio-economic tensions - air pollution accounts for 7 million deaths annually.

And this is before we consider deaths associated with mining coal, hydro dam collapses, solar energy production, wind energy incidents, etc.

I’m going to stop here. But when people talk about nuclear being safe, they refer to the chances of another Chernobyl, Three-Mile Island or Fukashima. From this perspective, there is no rationale to put nuclear in any different risk bracket than any other energy production technologies - wind, solar, gas, coal, hydro etc.

nuclear energy deaths vs fossil fuels
Credit: Harvard University

But what about all the nuclear waste?

“What about it?” I ask.

“There are big piles of radioactive waste that will be around for a million years, and we don’t know what to do with it.”

This is a typical start to many conversations about nuclear energy. And again, I’m not in the ‘if you did some research, you would know this is BS’ brigade. I understand why people have concerns, and I blame the collective nuclear industry for not doing a good enough job over the last 50 years to put the record straight.

Let us split this concern up into a nuclear of parts:

There are big piles of radioactive waste…

There is an estimated 250+ million tons of nuclear waste across the globe. The majority of which is legacy solid and liquid waste from early research and atomic bomb production. We have inherited much of this waste from generations gone by.

As for the operations of a current-generation nuclear plant - the whole of the US (93 operating reactors) produces 2,000 metric tons of used fuel per year. If you took all the waste produced by the US throughout its nuclear energy production since 1950, it would fit onto a single football field at 10 meters.

It would be remiss to say that the nuclear industry does not have waste that it needs to continue to manage, but to say that we have a problem is entirely false.

... that will be around for a million years…

Nuclear waste is hazardous due to its radioactivity. This concentrated energy could cause the molecules in our body to react in ways that can be highly damaging, sometimes giving rise to cancer.

It is always difficult to compare how hazardous certain materials are. Something like cyanide would kill you within moments. Inhaling plutonium would increase the likelihood of cancer developing in several years.

Some comparisons argue that coffee is more hazardous than plutonium. Whatever the comparison, nuclear waste is dangerous and needs to be handled and stored safely.

As for the fact that it is hazardous for a million years - around 97% of nuclear waste is hazardous for 10’s of years before being safely disposed of. The remaining 3% or so needs to be isolated from the environment for thousands of years. After 40 years the radioactivity of this waste will be down to 1/1000th from when it left the reactor.

... and we don’t know what to do with.

Before discussing storage, it is important to acknowledge that we can recycle about 90% of the used fuel coming out of a nuclear power station. If this was implemented across the US, annual waste production could drop to below 200 metric tons.

The nuclear industry has the technology and methodology to final store all its nuclear waste. Geological disposal facilities (GDFs) are currently used to dispose of other toxic wastes, including those containing mercury, cyanide, arsenic and dioxins.

It is more a fact of public acceptance than technological solutions.

In the meantime, nuclear waste has been stored safely, without a single issue for over 60 years. Most high-level waste is stored in glass form to ensure that the waste is secure, stable and protected from any external influence such as a terrorist attack.

Nuclear Power and Climate Change

The hazards associated with nuclear energy are different to those faced when using other technologies to generate energy. Understandably, this breeds fear of using nuclear power regardless of what the facts tell us.

By sharing the fatality rates and carbon emissions, we will continue to show that nuclear energy is a much safer alternative to other - usually more publicly acceptable - energy production technologies.

When you read the recent headlines, you can see that these messages are getting through to governmental decision-makers across the globe. With the need for clean energy and a push to reduce gas reliance, it is no longer acceptable to immediately dismiss nuclear power as a part of the safe, secure, sustainable future.

Therefore, if you remain on the side of anti-nuclear energy, it can be argued that you are, in fact, anti-environment.