What’s worse: climate change or radioactive nuclear waste with a half-life of tens of thousands of years? This is the question at the heart of a debate over nuclear energy that is currently ramping up against the backdrop of the COP26 climate summit taking place in Glasgow.
Of course, this is an oversimplification. There is a lot of nuance to the arguments for and against nuclear energy. Critics of nuclear energy point to high costs, the reliance of the industry on government handouts, the risk of a potential nuclear meltdown, and the cost of storing and maintaining nuclear waste for hundreds and thousands of years. “Reactors worldwide produce thousands of tons of highly radioactive detritus per year, on top of what has already been left by decades of harnessing the atom to electrify homes and factories around the world,” the Associated Press reported this week.
Advocates for nuclear, however, say that the risks of the nuclear energy industry are hugely overblown. In fact, the argument is that nuclear energy actually saves lives overall. Over the past 50 years, nuclear power has prevented approximately 74 Gt of carbon dioxide emissions that would have otherwise been created through the use of fossil fuels. In fact, it has been estimated by scientists from NASA’s Goddard Institute that nuclear power has already saved a whopping 1.8 million lives that would have been lost to the air pollution associated with the combustion of fossil fuels in general, and coal in particular.
This debate is currently playing out on a grand scale within the European Union, which is starkly divided on whether to recognize nuclear power as a “green” form of energy production. Much hinges on this decision, which would decide whether or not nuclear power is included in the EU’s climate policy and whether or not it will receive billions of Euros worth of funding in the coming years. The outcome of this debate has far-reaching consequences. As a leading international governmental body, the EU’s decision on nuclear will likely set an influential precedent for the rest of the world.
Within the EU, Germany is leading the charge against nuclear, while France - a nation that is already reliant on nuclear for a significant portion of its energy mix - is leading a consortium of European nations advocating for nuclear development. France is positioning nuclear energy as both a weapon to fight climate change and a reliable fuel source that could save Europe from future energy crunches like the one that they are experiencing now. Last month, France sent a letter to the European Commission advocating for nuclear power as a "key affordable, stable and independent energy source" that would protect EU consumers who are currently seeing sky-high energy bills from being further "exposed to the volatility of prices."
What’s more, nuclear advocates argue that the bottom line is that the harms caused by nuclear energy simply pale in comparison to the risks imposed by catastrophic climate change. It is, quite simply, the lesser of two evils. Advocates argue that we can no longer afford to debate the nuclear energy issue - developing new plants will be absolutely essential to meeting the goals set by the Paris climate accord.
“The scale of what human civilization is trying to do over the next 30 years (to fight climate change) is staggering,” Columbia University’s Center for Global Energy Policy’s Matt Bowen was quoted by the Associated Press. “It will be much more daunting if we exclude new nuclear plants - or even more daunting if we decide to shut down nuclear plants all together [sic].”
As the Western world quibbles over nuclear energy, China is moving full steam ahead on developing new nuclear capacity. With lots of capital and no political hang-ups due to the government’s totalitarian approach, China is poised to swiftly take over the nuclear energy sector. Beijing plans to bring 150 nuclear reactors online over the next 15 years - more nuclear capacity than the entire world has built in the last 35 years.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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