Nuclear energy is probably one of the most divisive topics in the public opinion. While many of us see it as a danger due to the potential adverse impacts on public health and the environment, others claim that we cannot do without it. The question is: should nuclear energy be part of the energy transition towards a zero carbon future?
What the experts say
Nuclear energy does not emit emissions directly and it is indeed the second cleanest source of energy, after hydropower. During the first Conference on Climate Change and the Role of Nuclear Power held in 2019 in Vienna by the International Atomic Energy (IAEA), the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), it was acknowledged that nuclear energy is crucial to achieve a global sustainable development, to fulfill the increasing world’s energy demand and to tackle global warming. Engineer Stefano Monti of the IAEA argues that “for a complete decarbonization by 2050 we cannot do without nuclear energy”. He underlines the many advantages of nuclear energy: production of hydrogen, water desalination, and heat for both households and industries. Furthermore, there are currently newer reactors under construction, the so-called small modular reactors (SMRs), which would be safer than regular reactors thanks to their passive safety system, and they would also entail lower upfront costs. In addition, contrary to regular reactors, SMRs would be more flexible, which means that they could be manufactured in one place and installed elsewhere, in those countries for instance where there is a growing demand for electricity or where water has to be desalinated because of the increasing desertification.
Despite these benefits of nuclear energy, we cannot ignore the accidents of Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986), whose reactor number 4 has recently started to function again after 35 years, and Fukushima (2011). The environmental and health impacts of radioactivity in case of an accident are dramatic. After 35 years from the accident at Chernobyl, five million people in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia are still living in territories that are officially recognized as contaminated. Moreover, Greenpeace urges governments and companies to phase out nuclear energy due to the high hazardousness of high level waste, the most radioactive type of nuclear waste. It is estimated that there is currently a global stockpile of around a quarter of a million tonnes of highly radioactive spent fuel spread around 14 countries. This radioactive waste will remain hazardous to humans and the environment on a time scale that transcends the existence of human civilization.
And what about uranium mining? Uranium is the fuel used in reactors for nuclear fission. The process of uranium extraction produces waste, which can contaminate the environment, if not properly managed. In addition, uranium mining might jeopardize the health of miners and of local populations due to the exposure to a toxic gas, radon.
What governments do
France gets about 70% of its electricity from its 56 nuclear plants. As announced by President Macron last December, nuclear power will “remain the cornerstone of our strategic autonomy.” However, he also added that the government is working to reduce nuclear power’s share in the country’s electricity mix to 50%.
In Germany instead the government decided to phase out nuclear power completely in response to the Fukushima accident of 2011. The country’s nuclear plants should be all shut down by the end of 2022.
One of the goals of the American Jobs Plan (USD 2,25 trillions), launched last March, is the full decarbonization of the electric sector by 2035 and of the whole energy sector by 2050. The Plan deals with higher investments towards clean energy, particularly hydropower and nuclear energy.
Although after the referendum in 2011 Italy banned nuclear energy and the four nuclear plants were decommissioned, the current Minister for the energetic transition, Roberto Cingolani, argues that nuclear fusion will be crucial for a zero carbon future. However, nuclear fusion is still only a project, the so-called ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor), which brings 35 countries together to develop the first fusion device.
The global picture
With the exacerbation of the climate crisis, governments are looking for ways to move away from fossil fuels to rely more on renewables, such as solar photovoltaics, onshore and offshore wind. In this context, there will always be a debate on whether nuclear energy should be part of this transition. The question is, do the benefits outweigh the dangers of nuclear energy use? On one hand nuclear power is crucial to tackle global warming since it is the second cleanest source of energy, but on the other hand its use is controversial due to cost, radioactive waste, safety and security matters. Moreover, small modular reactors and nuclear fusion, which are considered promising technologies of the future, are still only projects. As Greta Thunberg pointed out, we cannot think of reducing our emissions by investing in technologies that do not exist yet. We need the energy transition to happen as soon as possible to avoid the worst consequences of global warming, and renewables seem to be our best ally to do so.