Amid the climate crisis currently gripping the world, there is prominent discussion on clean and renewable energy alternatives to support sustainable development. Wind, solar, and hydro are popular options, but equal consideration should also be given to nuclear energy and power generation. But many environmentalists are wary of the potential impacts of nuclear disasters, raising the question: “is nuclear energy clean”?
Compared against its naturally occurring counterparts, nuclear power is a clean source of energy that generates zero carbon emissions, similar to wind, solar, or hydro. Power is generated through nuclear fission reactions, in which uranium atoms are split to create large quantities of steam, spinning turbines to produce electricity. There are no harmful emissions created in this process, and in 2019 alone, the United States was able to avoid 476 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, equivalent to removing 100 million cars from the road. With a smaller land and carbon footprint, nuclear power generation outpaces conventional renewables. A standard 1000-megawatt plant requires only one square kilometer of space. Wind farms require at least 360 times more space, and solar farms require at least 75 times more space. With such efficiency, nuclear power has supplied a fifth of the United States’ energy since 1990, accounting for 92.5% of capacity factors.
Beyond the United States, a recent study has shown that across several countries within the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), nuclear power has worked consistently in reducing emissions from production-based sources. Over long-term projections, nuclear power holds notable market potential by being cost effective, ensuring energy security and economic growth. Against renewables, wind and solar are intermittent by nature, and their capacity to produce electricity may not always match with demand. Within power grids which draw from renewables, other power sources must be occasionally utilised to increase or decrease supply on short notice. Conversely, nuclear power is far more consistent and reliable. However, there are notable shortcomings.
Over short-term projections, nuclear power faces higher construction and setup costs, with greater technicality and regulation involved, especially compared with renewable projects of similar scale. Per dollar invested, renewables offer quicker emission reductions by being cheaper and easier to implement. Continual investment into renewables also fosters positive experiential learning, whereby increased deployment can result in lower costs and improved performance, becoming more efficient with time. This is in contrast to the merits of nuclear power, which despite its performance record, must contend with negative public perception.
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There are three notable footnotes in the history of nuclear power generation, those being the Three Mile Island Accident, the Chernobyl Disaster, and the Fukushima Daiichi Disaster.
In short, the Three Mile Island Accident occurred on March 28, 1979, within Harrisburg, Pennsylvania of the United States. A pressurised water reactor experienced a loss of coolant, causing damage to nuclear fuel. The Chernobyl Disaster occurred on April 26, 1989, within the city of Pripyat in Ukraine. Human errors during a routine test procedure caused a catastrophic explosion in reactor four of the power plant. Lastly, the Fukushima Daiichi Disaster occurred on March 11, 2011, when a severe earthquake and a tsunami struck the northeast of Japan, causing extensive damage to the entire facility.
A study which provided an extensive overview of all three events showed that in each case, the incidents led to the dispersion of harmful radioactive material to varying degrees. To this day, the Chernobyl Disaster remains the worst incident of its kind in history, followed by Fukushima. These events had a profound and lasting impact on the nuclear industry, influencing regulatory practices, disaster management strategies, and communication transparency.
Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima each had their own unique constraining factors, but what they shared in common was that the authorities responsible for dealing with the incidents were ineffective at communicating the full extent of the damage with their concerned public. This led to hasty cleanup efforts, large evacuations, and environmental damage, all of which would be difficult to reconcile in a court of public opinion. Since then, these events have placed the nuclear industry beneath a negative light. Regardless of economic or environmental benefits, the damage has been done, and nuclear power is judged not on its successes, but rather its failures.
Even so, the issue of nuclear power is quite divisive around the world. In countries such as Belarus, Turkey, or Bangladesh, new power plants are currently under construction. On the other hand, other countries are scaling down their dependency on nuclear power. Germany remains committed to their plans to phase out nuclear power, yet the war in Ukraine and the call for Europe to wean itself off of Russian oil and gas has caused some delays with the rollout of this policy.
In any case, with regard to the debate on sustainable development in the midst of the climate crisis, the inherent risks involved with nuclear power cannot be ignored. Just the same, all options must be left on the table and considered equally. As policy experts and scientists have proven, nuclear power can be clean and remains a viable energy alternative with a consistently successful track record, despite some major hurdles.
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