Does nuclear power have a future?

Fears about safety have long hobbled the industry, particularly in the wake of Fukushima ten years ago. But the fears are overplayed and net-zero carbon goals look unachievable without it, says Simon Wilson.

Why the controversy?

Right from the beginning of nuclear power – the first commercial nuclear reactor was built at Windscale in Cumbria in 1956 – it was controversial due to issues of safety, cost and the long-lived and toxic waste it produces. Even so, nuclear energy continued to expand globally until the 1990s, since when it has all but flatlined. Then, ten years ago last month, the disaster at Fukushima dealt its reputation a body blow. Within days Angela Merkel, previously a strong backer of nuclear energy, ordered all of Germany’s reactors to be phased out. In China the world’s biggest programme of new nuclear plants was put on hold. 

How much energy does nuclear provide?

Globally, nuclear power produces around 10% of the world’s electricity, making it the second-biggest source of low-carbon energy after hydroelectric power. But that’s a sharp drop from a peak of 18% in the mid-1990s. According to figures collated by Bloomberg, there are 440 nuclear reactors currently in operation, with a combined electrical capacity of 392 gigawatts (GW). Another 50 are under construction, adding around 15% to current capacity. But that’s not even enough to make up for the 25% of reactors due to be shut down in advanced economies by 2025. Nuclear accounts for a bigger slice in advanced economies – 18% rather than 10%, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), making it the largest low-carbon source of energy. In the UK, for example, about 20% of current electricity capacity is nuclear. However, half of that is due to be retired by 2025, and all but one of the existing fleet of nuclear reactors is due to be taken offstream in the next ten years. Meanwhile, only one new plant, the 3.2 GW Hinkley Point C in Somerset, is being built, replacing just under 40% of current nuclear capacity.

So it’s in decline?

In most of the world, yes, with advanced economies due to lose two-thirds of their nuclear capacity by 2040. Proponents of nuclear power (including the IEA) argue that it is vital to the overall drive for net-zero carbon emissions by mid-century. Despite the impressive growth of solar and wind power, says the IEA, the overall share of clean-energy sources in total electricity supply in 2018, at 36%, was the same as it was 20 years earlier due to the decline in nuclear since the 1980s. “Halting that slide will be vital to stepping up the pace of the decarbonisation of electricity supply,” it says. Advocates argue that nuclear-power plants aid electricity security by keeping power grids stable and limiting impacts from seasonal fluctuations from renewables, and cutting dependence on imported fuels. In other words, nuclear has a vital role to play as reliable “firm generating capacity” during the decarbonising shift to renewables, and winding nuclear down for misguided safety reasons would be folly.

But isn’t nuclear power dangerous?

The debate about that has long been a battle between those concerned more with climate-change warming (nuclear is carbon-free) and those worried about safety. For pro-nuclear environmentalists, the embrace of nuclear power by China and (to a lesser extent so far) India is cause for celebration. Advocates have long argued that, in terms of the number of people killed or harmed, nuclear power is far safer than other forms of power generation. Since its earliest days, nuclear accidents have killed one person every 14 years, proponents say. Indeed, in 2013, Pushker Kharecha and James Hansen calculated that, between 1971 and 2009, nuclear power saved the lives of 1.84 million worldwide thanks to reductions in air pollution.

But what about Fukushima?

The earthquake and tsunami that flooded Japan’s east coast ten years ago killed about 18,500 people. But the destruction of the three reactors of the Fukushima plant – the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986 – killed only one person as a result of radiation exposure. Moreover, a report on Fukushima released last month by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) concluded that “no adverse health effects among Fukushima residents have been documented that could be directly attributed to radiation exposure”. Future consequences for health “are unlikely to be discernible” and there was “no credible evidence of excess congenital anomalies, stillbirths, pre-term deliveries or low birthweights related to radiation exposure”.

And Chernobyl?

The worst ever nuclear disaster was the result of human errors so “bizarre” that the scenario would have been “thought overambitious by a genuine saboteur”, says Dominic Lawson in The Sunday Times. The Soviet-era accident, which blew a 1,000-ton concrete reactor shield away in a mighty explosion, was the result of an insane experiment in which one of the reactors was made to run at a dangerously low level, the cooling unit disconnected and the safety mechanism switched off. It was feared deaths would run into the hundreds of thousands. In fact, “apart from the heroic Chernobyl emergency team, fewer than 100 deaths have been attributable to increased radiation – and no known birth deformities”, according to UNSCEAR.

So nuclear is safe?

It’s far safer than most people realise, says The Economist. China’s post-Fukushima pause on nuclear didn’t last long: it soon accelerated again and by 2019 produced four times as much as in 2011, with more expansion planned. There’s a strong case for countries such as Britain to follow China’s lead and import its technology. Moreover, modern smaller reactors with lower unit costs are a promising development that can make nuclear cheaper and more flexible. Nuclear power has its drawbacks, but to hasten its decline “is wilfully to hobble the world in the greatest environmental struggle of all”. The lesson of Fukushima is “not to eschew nuclear power, it is to use it wisely”.

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