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Is Nuclear Energy the only solution to climate change?

Our climate has changed over time. There have been seven cycles of glacial advance and retreat in the last 650,000 years, with the abrupt end of the last ice age marking the start of the contemporary climate era – and human civilisation. The majority of these climate shifts are due to minute changes in the Earth’s orbit that alter our planet’s quantity of solar energy. The current warming trend is significant because it has unmistakably been the product of human activity since the mid-twentieth century. It is occurring at a rate that has never been seen before in millennia.

But what factors affect climate change?

The global climate system has a simple mechanism. The globe cools when energy from the sun is reflected off the Earth and back into space, primarily by clouds and ice, or when energy is released from the Earth’s atmosphere. The globe warms when it absorbs the sun’s energy or when atmospheric gases prevent heat from radiating out into space. This process is known as the greenhouse effect.
But there are multple phenomena that can amplify the process. The intensity of incoming sunlight, frequency of volcanic eruptions, and variations in the concentration of naturally occuring greenhouse gases (GHG) can all affect climate change. Human activities can also have drastic impacts. One of the largest sources of human-generated emissions is the combustion of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and gas for electricity, heat, and transportation. Deforestation is another significant contributor, as it releases sequestered carbon into the atmosphere. It is estimated that logging, clearcutting, controlled burning and other methods of forest degradation emit an average of 8.1 billion metric tons of CO2 each year, accounting for more than 20% of all CO2 emissions worldwide.
While energy is imperative to the survival of civilisations, the question is – which energy source will pose the least threat to climate change? Over the last few decades, many scientists have considered nuclear power to be the saviour.


On the contrary, renewable energy is becoming more affordable. On-shore wind electricity is already 30% to 50% cheaper to produce than electricity from the forthcoming European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) or the present French reactors, assuming they are renovated. As early as 2018, the same might be said for solar energy.



Is nuclear power the answer?

Nuclear power stations emit no greenhouse gases when in operation. According to the World Nuclear Association, nuclear power plants produce no greenhouse gas emissions during operation, and over the course of its life-cycle, nuclear produces about the same amount of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions per unit of electricity as wind, and one-third of the emissions per unit of electricity when compared with solar.
Nuclear power may immediately replace fossil fuel plants because it is reliable and can be implemented on a massive scale. Today’s usage of nuclear energy elimiates emissions equivalent to removing one-third of all motor vehicles from roads. While electrical motors are considered clean, they still account for more than 40% of all energy-related carbon emissions. Any climate change strategy must include decarbonising the electrical supply while delivering inexpensive and dependable electricity to a growing global population. Nuclear energy has shown its ability to be a catalyst for achieving sustainable energy transitions.
Multiple countries have successfully integrated nuclear power into their energy production mechanism. France gets more than 70% of its electricity from nuclear power, the highest percentage of any country globally, and its electricity sector has one-sixth the emissions of the European average. In just 15 years, nuclear power has gone from being a small portion of France’s power sector to becoming the country’s major source of electricity. This shows promise that nuclear energy can be scaled according to the increasing global power demand, and be an effective tool for tackling climate change.




A double-edged sword – looking into the drawbacks of nuclear power

While many are advocates of using nuclear power to combat the global climate crisis, many others stand to disagree.

An exorbitantly overpriced energy source.
Despite having its benefits, the entire value chain of generating nuclear power is very costly. According to the International Energy Agency, renewable energy accounted for 57% of new electricity generation capacity investments between 2000 and 2013, whereas nuclear accounted for only 3%. Furthermore, numerous new reactor projects have been abandoned in recent years due to the cost of setting up the infrastructure. On the contrary, renewable energy is becoming more affordable. On-shore wind electricity is already 30% to 50% cheaper to produce than electricity from the forthcoming European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) or the present French reactors, assuming they are renovated. The same can be said for solar energy.

An energy source that is on the decrease
Nuclear power accounts for less than 2% of global energy use 16% of which is in France. It equates to only 10.8% of global electricity generation, a significant decrease from the previous high of 17.6% in 1996. Nuclear power will continue to diminish since the number of reactors currently under development are not enough to replace the many older reactors that will shut down in the coming decades. Since 2012, even China, which has the highest number of reactors under construction, has produced more electricity from wind turbines than nuclear power. Nuclear energy accounts for less than 3% of the country’s total energy consumption.

A major disaster is always a possibility
Despite all the benefits that a nuclear power source ensures, one can never chalk out the possibility of a global catastrophe if anything goes wrong. The Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN) stated, “elected officials must be prepared for a nuclear accident” and that a significant accident would be an “unmanageable European catastrophe” costing up to 760 billion euros. A number of circumstances can cause accidents in a nuclear power reactor. Building additional reactors after the examples of Chernobyl and Fukushima would essentially be another disaster waiting to happen, contaminating massive swaths of land for millennia and wreaking havoc on the health and living conditions of millions of people.

Limited holistic contribution on combatting the climate change
75% of global GHG emissions come from industries that have no relation to power production are only partially electrified or squander electricity. Therefore, opting for nuclear power does not necessarily indicate a cleaner or safer environment.

Nuclear power is not suited to a changing climate.
When considering the entire life cycle, 1 kilowatt hour from nuclear energy consumes far more water than a killowatt hour from wind or photovoltaic energy. Furthermore, extreme weather events can interrupt nuclear power plant operations. During the hot summer of 2003, one-quarter of France’s nuclear reactors had to be shut down or operated at reduced capacity. Drought-caused fires can endanger nuclear power plants. The electric grid may be harmed as well. Even when the reactors are turned off, they require a steady source of electricity to keep them cold enough to avoid a core melt. During a storm in France, in the year 1999, the Blayais nucleur power station near Bordeaux was flooded and came dangerously close to a meltdown.

More significant contamination from radioactivity and nuclear waste
Every phase of the nuclear cycle produces pollution, from uranium mining to nuclear waste, as well as radioactive and chemical pollutants from nuclear reactors. Globally, 300,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel has already accumulated. For hundreds of millions of years, this extremely radioactive nuclear waste will pose a threat. Nuclear countries intend to bury the waste, but the only existing burial sites (Asse in Germany and WIPP in the United States) have devolved into massive disasters that have already contaminated the environment despite storing very little radioactive waste. Nuclear power has both its merits and demerits. On one side is the glimpse of a cleaner, greener tomorrow, and on the other, the massive expense that it incurs and the possibility of a deadly catastrophe. So despite the ongoing debate, what are the viable options at hand?


On one side is the glimpse of a cleaner, greener tomorrow, and on the other, the massive expense that it incurs and the possibility of a deadly catastrophe.


Saving energy is the most cost-effective option.
Every sector has enormous energy-saving potential: building, industry, transportation, information technology, household appliances, and so on. According to the International Energy Agency, efficiency measures should account for 50% of GHG emission reductions by 2020.

Aiming for 100% renewable energy
According to the French Environment and Energy Management Agency (ADEME), obtaining 100% renewable electricity by 2050 will cost the same as operating the nuclear plants that are currently active. For example, France can produce three times the amount of renewable electricity required to meet its current demand. The ‘négaWatt’ scenario has shown that by 2050, renewables may fulfil all of France’s energy needs.

Break free from the shackles of nuclear and fossil fuels.
Nuclear power and fossil fuels are the foundation of a centralised, rigid energy system that encourages waste and hinders the rapid spread of renewable energy sources. We must break free from the shackles of the energies of the past. Germany is leading this energy transition revolution. Thanks to persistent institutional support, the energy transition will allow Germany to close its nuclear facilities by 2022 while practically continuously reducing its GHG emissions for the past 25 years. The country wants to reduce emissions by 55% by 2030. To that end, and contrary to popular opinion, Germany has not utilised coal to phase out nuclear power. Granted, between 2012 and 2015, some coal-fired plants which were under development between 2005 and 2009 did come online. However, the continued expansion of renewables has considerably outweighed the drop in nuclear power generation. Since 2011, when eight nuclear reactors were permanently shut down, no new coal-fired power plants have been built, and six proposals have been cancelled! Furthermore, by 2020, many coal-fired power facilities with a combined capacity of 2.7 GW will be decommissioned and will only be used in an emergency.


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