Natalie Keir tackles the toxic topic of nuclear energy

Nuclear energy has a notoriously bad reputation, an attitude shared worldwide according to a recent BBC public opinion poll. Members of the public in Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Pakistan, Mexico, Spain, Russia, UK and USA were asked about their views, but only 22% of people said that in the future, more nuclear power plants should be built. I personally find this quite surprising; I would class myself as a cautious supporter of nuclear energy. It seems to me that the vast majority of solid scientific evidence points towards it, and that many of the arguments against it are highly influenced by propaganda surrounding nuclear weapons and even nuclear disasters. Then again, any politician could tell you that hype is often far more persuasive than fact when it comes to public opinion.

It has been predicted that some fossil fuels will have run out by 2060, so where do we go from here? In an ideal world, everything would be powered by renewable energy, but the feasibility of this world ever existing is dubious and the lack of clarity on this dispute is astonishing. There are highly reliable sources on both sides of the argument, and independent reviews come out with widely varying results. For the sake of this article, I will assume that this world powered entirely by renewables is possible, and examine some statistics proposed by Mark Jacobson, an engineering professor at Stanford, and Mark Delucchi, an energy and environmental systems analyst at University of California Davis. They propose that for the whole world to source their energy from renewables, four million wind turbines, 90,000 large scale solar farms and almost 2 billion rooftop solar systems would need to be installed globally. So yes, it is possible, but is this proposal really practical?

Firstly, there is the problem of lack of political will. We have a very close-to-home example of this, in the Kenly Wind Farm proposal. The University of St Andrews has put forward a proposal to build 6 wind turbines just outside St Andrews, and a huge number of local residents are campaigning against the plan. Imagine the uproar if the UK government tried to build their proportion of the 4 million proposed wind turbines, along with the solar farms that would also be necessary. The chance of reelection would be dismal. Now consider how a country such as china, which is in the midst of substantial industrial growth, would react to having their 39 nuclear power plants shut down, in favour of renewable energies that would require billions of dollars of investment. Finally, there is the questionable abundance of the rare earth metals required to build the electric motors for the wind turbines, and the rather significant problem of mining them. All in all, it seems like an outrageously difficult proposal upon which to act.

Another negative concept that people tend to associate with nuclear energy, is terrorism. It is true that many of the technologies used to enrich uranium to a level appropriate for nuclear power can also be used to create a nuclear bomb. This does not necessarily mean that using nuclear power makes developing a nuclear bomb any easier or more convenient. Of the 21 nations that use nuclear power, seven have nuclear weapons, and these seven countries all developed nuclear weapons before nuclear energy. If a country is intent on developing nuclear weapons, it will produce them with or without the front of nuclear power.

The other scare-factor associated with nuclear power is the prospect of nuclear meltdowns. Meltdowns of the past have been extensively documented. The disasters at plants such as Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and now Fukushima were tragedies, and many have lost their lives at the hands of nuclear power. The nuclear accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, in what is now Ukraine, is widely believed to be the most devastating nuclear disaster in history. Statistics are sketchy, as many deaths have been and will be caused indirectly, but it is thought that 4000 people could eventually die due to radiation from the accident. This figure has to be put into perspective, as all energy sources come with risks. The fossil fuels that the world has been happily burning for the past 200 years directly cause 2 million deaths a year through air pollution. Almost half of these deaths are due to pneumonia in children under the age of 5. Nuclear power no longer seems so deadly.

The one major advantage that renewable energy holds over nuclear energy is the lack of waste. Radioactive waste really is the bane of the nuclear industry, and as time goes on, the spent fuel just keeps accumulating. Currently, the waste is being stored on the nuclear plant sites, in casks that are safe for the time being, but are by no means a permanent solution. For 30 years, the US government looked into using Yucca Mountain in Nevada as underground storage for the radioactive material, but the Obama administration abandoned the scheme last year due to resilient local opposition.  Sweden, however, have been more successful in their endeavours. The spent fuel produced in Sweden is cooled on-site for a year, before being shipped to storage cassettes that are submerged 25 meters underwater. The fuel remains there for 30 years before being transported to a geological repository. So far, this system has worked fantastically, and with further research and development, this could be the solution to the problem that has persistently plagued the nuclear renaissance.

Almost 100 years after Rutherford first split the atom, the world is still trying to harness the immense power that is produced from those inconceivably tiny particles. Nuclear power is admittedly an extreme compromise. Many environmentalists would argue that by the time fossil fuels have run out, renewable technologies will have advanced enough that powering the entire world will not be so much of a challenge, but is waiting around to see if this is true really worth the risk?


Natalie Keir


Image by Mad House Photography