Ever since I was interested in scientific topics, I learned about climate change and why we needed to address that. That was over a decade ago when I was in my early teens, but it wasn’t until about 4-5 years ago when I heard about nuclear. Well, I did hear about nuclear before, but not in the context of climate change. And when nuclear energy was brought up, it was very often put in a negative light. It’s absolutely dangerous…mountains of radioactive waste that will be with us for generations…you know what I am talking about. But despite this, I was mostly nuclear neutral. But this changed when in recent years after I learned a few things (apologies for the ranting).
Nuclear energy today produces more energy globally than solar and wind combined.
I was aware that nuclear fission did not emit greenhouse gases, but I did not know that the life-cycle emissions of nuclear is lower than that of solar energy per unit energy produced. And that nuclear is among the safest and cleanest sources of energy, despite of accidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima.
In fact, one of the surprising findings of studies on these accidents is that the impact from fear was more severe to human health than the radiation itself.
Deep fear of nuclear radiation is widespread, yet research on radiation’s biological effects finds that the level of alarm far exceeds the actual danger. This “radiophobia”has roots in the fear of nuclear weapons, but has been significantly reinforced and inflamed by accidents at nuclear power plants. Radiophobia does far more harm to human health than the radiation released by nuclear accidents. In some cases, the harm results from disaster response. The influence of radiophobia on society’s energy choices poses great additional dangers. […] We didn’t have this knowledge in the 1950s and 1960s as the fear of radiation was becoming commonly accepted, but we do now, so we can compare harm from radiation at Chernobyl to the disaster’s non-radiological health impacts. Decades of research has established that fear of radiation did much more damage than radiation itself. As UNSCEAR reported, “Many other health problems have been noted in the populations that are not related to radiation exposure…Rates of depression doubled. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was widespread, anxiety and alcoholism and suicidal thinking increased dramatically…People in the affected areas report negative assessments of their health and well-being, coupled with an exaggerated sense of the danger to their health from radiation exposure and a belief in a shorter life expectancy. Life expectancy of the evacuees dropped from 65 to 58 years…Anxiety over the health effects of radiation shows no signs of diminishing and may even be spreading.”In Chernobyl’s Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts, a meta-analysis of 20 years of research, UNSCEAR said, “The mental health impact of Chernobyl is the largest public health problem caused by the accident to date”(IAEA 2006)
And another shocking fact is that most of the relocation after Chernobyl was unnecessary and for Fukushima…none of it was necessary. In fact, the evacuation in Fukushima was rushed and botched such that it ended up killing more people than the radiation (could).
Since nuclear accidents (particular Fukushima and TMI) seem to have led to surprisingly low death tolls, you can actually make the argument that even the major accidents exemplify the safety of nuclear energy. Quoting from environmental activist George Monbiot:
You will not be surprised to hear that the events in Japan have changed my view of nuclear power. You will be surprised to hear how they have changed it. As a result of the disaster at Fukushima, I am no longer nuclear-neutral. I now support the technology. A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation.
Even Chernobyl is not actually the worst energy related disaster. The biggest comes from a renewable power source. The Banqiao dam failure in 1975 that resulted in a flash flood that killed somewhere between 85,600 to 240,000, destroying everything within an area of an 12,000 Km^2. In comparison, the most pessimistic figure provided by a EU green party funded study says Chernobyl killed 60.000, while the WHO gives a more conservative figure of 4000. The Chernobyl exclusion zone is 2,600 Km^2, about 4x less than Banqiao. Also, the exclusion zone today practically functions as a wild life refuge. So, if Chernobyl is a reason to shut down all nuclear plants, then surely we should be shutting down all hydro dams.
Of course, everyone is worrying about the waste, but the spent fuel waste is tiny. If you used nuclear energy for everything in your entire life including transportation, the spent fuel waste would be the size of a soda can. And all of it is contained, unlike the waste from fossil fuels that is dumped in the air and in the water. And the “spent fuel” is a rather misnomer since spent fuel can be “burned” further in fast breeder reactors, generating more electricity without having to mine more uranium and also reducing the amount of waste and how long it will stay radioactive.
Not only that, fossil fuels releases about 100 times more radioactive waste into the environment. If fossil fuels were regulated on the same standards as nuclear power, then all combustion plants would be shut down because of the radiation alone. So if you are worried about radioactive waste, it’s not nuclear energy that you should be looking at.
IPCC has also stated that nuclear has to be part of the energy mix to reach the goal of limiting warming below 1.5 Celsius. And a recent UNECE report concluded that nuclear is - in many aspects - even cleaner than many renewables, as it takes up less land and needs less raw materials per unit energy. However, the point is not “nuclear good, renewables bad”. That’s a complete distraction. The issues are the GHGs and particulate pollution from fossils fuels that kills people by the hundreds of thousands every year. To put this in perspective, fossil fuels - working “perfectly” as intended - is like a Chernobyl going off every few weeks/days.
Let’s look at which places in the world who have low GHG emissions. There are a few that did so with renewables, although only with hydro and/or geothermal. There is not a country that has low carbon intensity of its electricity with just solar and wind alone. There are also a few that have a significant proportion of its grid generated by nuclear.
And this also addresses the common “nuclear plants take too long to build” argument. Ontario replaced coal power with nuclear, the biggest fossil fuel phase out in North American history. In response to the oil crisis, France build a fleet of reactors, with peak construction between 1978 to 1989. France’s relative electricity production went from 20% nuclear to 80% nuclear. Not only that, this also DOUBLED their total absolute electricity output.
Similar situations can be seen in other countries as well.
However, when you listen to discussions on clean energy, you will most often hear about Germany who has invested over 500 billion euros on solar and wind. Yet, it’s electricity remains dirtier (and more expensive) than that of countries like France. The big problem is that Germany is actively shutting down their nuclear power plants. They are trying to reduce their GHG emissions, but they are literally swimming against the current of their own making. One that leads to over 1000 deaths annually from air pollution that could’ve simply been avoided if Germany kept its nuclear plants.
And then you have situations like this, where environmentalist NGO’s are bragging about their accomplishment of shutting down a nuclear plant, WHILE patting themselves on the back for opposing fossil fuels at the same time.
Meanwhile, thanks to the shut down of Indian Point, New York’s GHGs emissions has spiked because the gap left was filled by methane combustion. And this isn’t the only occurrence. Everytime a nuclear power plant is shut down, the gap is filled mostly (if not entirely) by fossil fuels. And even if I were to grant that you could replace it by renewables (which I highly doubt), that’s renewable energy that won’t replace fossil fuels. We need MORE carbon free power, not replace one low-carbon energy source with another one. No point in mincing words. Shutting down nuclear plants prematurely is a crime against the environment. This should be infuriating to anyone who dares to call themselves an environmentalist.
Fortunately, I have noticed that attitudes have been changing in recent years. I have noticed several popular science communicators on Youtube publishing videos that are pro-nuclear (or at the very least pointing out that nuclear is carbon free and safe, and its thus better to keep nuclear power in the fight against fossil fuels), like kurzgesagt, which is ironically German. In fact, just this past month there was a pro-nuclear rally in Germany joined by James Hansen, one of the first scientists to raise public awareness of climate change and (unsurprisingly) a big advocate of nuclear power.
Hopefully, more people will listen.