Nuclear: Our Last Best Option

Aug 21 · 8 min read
Why these power plants might be the key to finding a new carbon-free energy source. Courtesy of Government Europa

About a year ago, I visited Germany for vacation, first flying to Berlin and then taking a train to Frankfurt. On the train ride, I distinctly remember staring outside the window to see endless swaths of green fields densely dotted with huge wind turbines. Intrigued by the prospect of millions of wind turbines being the solution to clean, renewable energy for the world, I decided to learn more about wind turbines and by extension, renewable energy, and their effect in combating climate change.

Germany is a leader on the world stage in terms of government subsidies and investment in wind energy, with 9.7 billion euros invested in new wind turbines in 2018. Wind power’s contribution to Germany’s total energy production jumped from 9.3% in 2010 to 18.7% in 2017, and Germany now has more than 30,000 turbines installed. Yet in the past few years, while energy growth rates continue growing, Germany’s emissions have continued to rise. So what happened?

In reality, this seemingly paradoxical observation is more common than one may think. In the United States, the state of Vermont has experienced a similar increase in emissions despite extensive government efforts to invest in solar panel farms and wind turbines throughout the rural state. The same can be said for a multitude of countries, states, and even entire regions around the world. It turns out the rapid growth in global energy demand and consumption has outstripped the growth and development in our current renewable energy sources. This puts us at a crisis; how can we reduce emissions if renewables can’t catch up to energy demand?

The solution lies in a socially and politically shunned though economically viable and efficient source of energy: nuclear energy.

Nuclear’s qualities allow it to quickly replace fossil fuels as the main source of the world’s energy, something that other renewables are simply unable to do. Its most important quality is perhaps its high reliability in energy production. According to a study done by the Office of Nuclear Energy of the United States, while other renewable energy sources have low capacity factors (a measure of how often sources of energy are producing maximum power) — like solar at 26.1%, wind at 37.4% and hydroelectric at 57.6% — nuclear’s factor is a whopping 92%, even higher than a non-renewable like coal at 54%. This is because while solar, wind and hydroelectric energy production may fluctuate on a day to day basis based on the environment, nuclear will remain stable regardless of natural conditions. With long-term battery storage currently technologically infeasible and large-scale batteries difficult to be produced on a commercial level, the world cannot depend on storing energy produced only when the environmental conditions are optimal due to continuous demand. This forces other renewable sources of energy to depend on another energy source to provide baseload power, or the minimum amount of energy needed to meet the demand for a power grid. Oftentimes, this baseload power is fossil fuels themselves, negating a major portion of the benefits of renewables themselves. Because of this, nuclear’s stability in energy production is crucial as it allows nuclear to be a low-carbon-emission energy source reliable enough to completely replace fossil fuels as the baseload power to electricity grids.

While other renewables only can produce electricity with the right environmental conditions, nuclear is a stable, baseload energy source. Courtesy of Environmental Progress

At the same time, nuclear energy also offers other enticing benefits. According to a study done by Environmental Progress, a research and policy organization, per unit energy of production, nuclear requires 400 times less land than wind turbines, produces 300 times less waste than solar panels, and fifteen times fewer materials than hydroelectric energy. Nuclear is also cheaper to maintain and requires fewer employees, ensuring lowered costs for companies or governments running power plants. A clear example of nuclear efficiency can be seen by the fact that seven small nuclear facilities in Ohio produce 30% more energy than all of the solar panels in the United States combined. Thus, this results in nuclear being cheaper in terms of the amount of energy produced per unit cost and in long term energy production when compared to other renewables.

Finally, current renewables simply do not and will not have the capacity to substantially mitigate climate change in the upcoming years. With the effects of climate change already being felt around the world, and irreversible damage being done, we need a new energy source within the next few years. Renewables still require decades to improve their capacity factor, efficiency, and affordability to individuals, companies and governments alike, not to mention the amount of time necessary beyond that to build and install the prodigious numbers necessary to power the world. Nuclear, on the other hand, through extensive research and testing in the past seven decades, has improved greatly and has become a mostly mature energy source. The technology is ready; we just need the political willpower and economic incentives to build new power plants.

Nuclear energy alone already produces more than 10% of the world’s energy, and its energy production grew by 2.4% in 2018. Unfortunately, that rate of growth simply isn’t enough if we want it to replace the role of fossil fuels as the backbone of our electricity grids. This can be attributed to several reasons, perhaps the most prominent of which are subsidies for nuclear power.

The most recent study by the United States Congressional Budget Office found that renewables received 94 times more in federal subsidies in 2016 than nuclear per unit electricity generated, while even fossil fuels received twice as much as nuclear. Other countries have similar subsidy patterns, with Germany transferring the entirety of their nuclear subsidies in favor of solar and wind subsidies. This system needs to change. After understanding the multifaceted collection of benefits offered by nuclear over other renewables, it is self-evident that governments and NGO’s should shift the majority subsidy funding towards nuclear power. This would help off-set the currently slightly higher cost of nuclear energy when compared to other renewables (though still cheaper than coal) to help nuclear energy become competitive enough against other renewables to justify new growth, build nuclear power plants, and boost research to ultimately decrease the cost of nuclear energy. This plan moves federal subsidies to work more efficiently, rather than simply increasing the amount of government funding allocated to them. This is especially important in developing countries with fewer resources to minimize financial strain. Instead of creating a whole new system, it’s often a lot easier, faster, and more feasible for poor but oftentimes high-emission countries to build off of and modify an already existing one.

Another challenge faced by nuclear energy is the question of public or private ownership. Currently, the majority of major energy companies are privately owned and are therefore more or less driven by the market economy. In the same token, the majority of nuclear power plants are privately owned, resulting in market-driven dynamics in terms of the building of new plants or the expansion of existing ones. This becomes an issue as the slightly higher costs of nuclear energy when compared with other renewables and oil discourage entrepreneurs and investors from investing in the nuclear energy sector in favor of other currently more profitable energy sectors, like fossil fuels or renewables. This stagnates nuclear’s much-needed growth and warrants significant extra market involvement by the government in order for nuclear to become a viable baseload energy source in the near future. While increased subsidies may help with this problem, with nuclear only providing a fraction of current energy demand and the direness of a new energy source, governments will need to find a new way to stimulate rapid growth. At the same time, the risk of potentially dangerous accidents such as meltdowns with geographically widespread consequences requires a strong regulatory body in place to ensure the safe and unabused production of nuclear energy. A solution to both would be direct government intervention through reimbursing the relatively expensive construction of power plants in return for a varying degree of government control. This could come in many different forms, whether being a private company heavily regulated and supported by the government, to a private-public partnership, to even full government ownership. Different countries would be able to use this flexibility to develop unique but still effective methods of regulating policy and be able to shape it as to smoothly incorporate it into its bureaucracy. For example, the vast majority of nuclear power plants in the United States are privately owned, yet still under heavy government supervision through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Meanwhile, all the nuclear power plants in France are government-owned and already provide the bulk (72%) of electricity consumption, the highest in the world.

Through the course of a few decades, France has managed to shift its energy production mostly to nuclear while still managing to meet the growing demand. Graph from IEA Energy Statistics.

Finally, for these policies to be adopted, one must consider public opinion regarding nuclear energy. Due to infamous meltdowns like Fukushima and Chenobyl, radioactive nuclear waste, and nuclear energy’s correlation with nuclear weapons, public stigma remains a driving factor in the prevention of palpable nuclear energy growth. However, with new developments in nuclear power, meltdowns have become extremely rare in fourth-generation generators. The few, extremely rare accidents that have occurred, have killed several hundred persons due to radiation, compared to the millions that die yearly from carbon-based pollution. Plants produce less and less waste as they become more and more efficient, and the waste that they do produce is and will be small enough to be safely and effectively stored. Nuclear energy production simply uses the same material as nuclear weapons, and the production is five times safer in terms of worker and civilian injuries or deaths than the production of coal and oil. Public ignorance can always be combated with government information campaigns. With a concerted effort to swap the negative connotations of nuclear with positive ones, specifically its potential as a new carbon-free energy source, it is definitely possible to sway public opinion enough to increase nuclear’s role in our energy production.

Yet nuclear is not the panacea; for one, nuclear is oftentimes quite expensive for developing countries and requires extensive technology sharing of this sensitive form of energy production. Waste, though few and far between, still is a crucial issue as it cannot be treated. And current energy production is only a factor contributing to climate change: there’s energy consumption, transportation, and even agricultural factors contributing to the warming of our planet. Nevertheless, no form of energy is perfect, and despite some of its negative aspects, implementing nuclear energy as a necessary stopgap will be the first step in creating a greener world. Perhaps in the future solar, wind, and other renewable energy along with batteries will be advanced enough to satisfy our growing energy needs. But until then, in terms of stalling the impending consequences of climate change, nuclear may be our last best option.

Phillip Yan

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Policy Over Presentation

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