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Why Are Environmentalists Pushing Back Against Nuclear Energy?

While several world powers are demonstrating their support for nuclear power projects, after years of opposition, many are still concerned about the potential implications of developing new nuclear plants. Not only are challengers of nuclear power questioning its “greenness” and how to dispose of nuclear waste, but several also raise the question of safety and how much nuclear technology has actually changed.  In recent months, Europe’s backing of nuclear power has become increasingly evident. Many have long argued that nuclear power is the obvious way to achieve a transition away from fossil fuels. And now, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent sanctions imposed on Russian energy have added fuel to the fire. Policymakers across the region are discussing the mass development of nuclear power plants for the first time in decades. 

Following the COP26 climate summit, where countries around the world pledged to decarbonize and transition to renewable energy, governments, and energy firms around the world massively increased their focus on green energy projects, such as wind and solar farms. However, to date, the fluctuation of these power sources and the lack of sufficient battery storage technology has meant there is an ongoing need for fossil fuels to meet global demand. 

While many countries have turned their backs on coal – the ‘dirtiest fossil fuel’ – a large number of countries have acknowledged the need to continue producing less carbon polluting natural gas until the renewable energy sector is developed enough to produce enough energy to meet our needs. However, others suggest a different solution – nuclear power. 

Nuclear power is not a renewable energy source, but it is viewed as ‘green’ by many countries as it creates few carbon emissions. Olga Algayerova, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe suggested it as a potential alternative to LNG, saying “Nuclear power is an important source of low-carbon electricity and heat that can contribute to attaining carbon neutrality and hence help to mitigate climate change.”

And it appears that numerous governments agree with this approach. For example, China approved the construction of six nuclear reactors in April. This comes after releasing the country’s Modern Energy System 14th Five-Year Plan, which states the target for increasing non-fossil fuel energy consumption to 20 percent by 2025. The government suggests "the steady construction of coastal nuclear power projects with an emphasis on safety", to reach a nuclear power capacity of 70 Gwe by 2025. 

In the U.S., President Biden announced a $6 billion investment to help save the country’s failing nuclear power plants, to ensure U.S. energy security during the energy transition. Several nuclear facilities at risk of closure will receive a new lease of life thanks to Biden’s funding, with energy secretary Jennifer Granholm stating “US nuclear power plants contribute more than half of our carbon-free electricity, and President Biden is committed to keeping these plants active to reach our clean energy goals.”

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Meanwhile, in the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said that “instead of a new one every decade, we’re going to build one every year, powering homes with clean, safe and reliable energy”, talking about nuclear plants. The country’s nuclear energy provision has been steadily rising, meeting around 21 percent of U.K. energy needs in 2020 compared to 9.4 percent in 2000. And now the government has announced a strategy to increase nuclear power generation to 24 GW by 2050, equivalent to around 25 percent of the U.K.’s electricity demand.

But nuclear power isn’t everyone’s answer. The recent Russian takeover of a nuclear plant in Ukraine exposed the potential vulnerabilities of nuclear power. This only adds to the public perception of nuclear energy as dangerous following several famous disasters. Several security issues, from warfare and economic collapse to climate change, have made the development of new nuclear plants even more troublesome. The potential for the creation of WMDs using nuclear energy must also be considered. 

The argument that there have been several technological advances since the Chernobyl incident is largely undermined by Fukushima, which showed that natural disasters could have a devastating effect if they hit an area with a nuclear power plant.

As well as the security concerns involved, environmentalists and energy experts worldwide simply argue that nuclear energy cannot possibly be considered “green”, meaning it is unfit for a renewable energy transition. The U.S. is divided on the matter, with some arguing that nuclear power is necessary to decarbonize while others believe the high cost of nuclear power and security concerns cannot compete with low-cost, safe renewable sources such as wind and solar power. 

Meanwhile, Germany has actively opposed the EU decision to label nuclear power as green, with the country’s economy and climate ministry stating "The Federal Government has expressed its opposition to the taxonomy rules on nuclear power. This 'no' is an important political signal that makes clear: Nuclear energy is not sustainable and should therefore not be part of the taxonomy." 

As several world powers quickly push through new energy strategies that include the development of new nuclear power plants, environmentalists, experts and public figures worldwide continue to oppose the increase in nuclear power due to safety concerns, expense, uncertainty around nuclear waste disposal, and the simple fact that it is not ‘green’.

By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com

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Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock is a freelance writer specialising in Energy and Finance. She has a Master’s in International Development from the University of Birmingham, UK. More