It’s one of the cheapest sources of energy in the world (and it’s about to get bigger) – Michael Collins
Fukushima, northeast of Japan’s largest island, is vulnerable to earthquakes and tsunamis. From 1971 the area hosted the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant which was built 10 meters above sea level. electricity from Japan.
That was until an earthquake hit in 2011 and a tsunami submerged three reactors at the Daiichi plant. Radioactive material leaked and more than 2,300 people died in what a parliamentary inquiry described as ‘a profoundly man-made disaster’.
Tokyo reacted to public alarm. Within a year, only one of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors was working. The nuclear energy craze, which peaked at 17% of global energy production in 1996, has faded around the world.
Reduce one risk but deal with another. This danger is climate change. But there are so many barriers to reducing emissions. Voters oppose carbon taxes. Renewables struggle to match fossil fuels in terms of reliability and cost. “Energy security” has acquired renewed political importance since Russia invaded Ukraine.
What to do? Much of the answer could be nuclear energy, which is generated in a process known as fission – when atoms of uranium or plutonium are split to release heat which produces steam to spin turbines. Even if radioactive waste is produced, policymakers are talking about adding to the 439 reactors in operation in 32 countries that still provide around 10% of the world’s energy.
It is easy to understand why leaders are attracted to nuclear energy. As long as countries can supply themselves with uranium or plutonium, the nuclear option offers energy self-sufficiency and is the cheapest energy without greenhouse gases – the one that is cheaper than all fossil fuels, except the cheapest.
Number of nuclear reactors by country
Two promising developments could make nuclear power more attractive. The first is the advent of commercial nuclear mini-reactors. These mini-reactors would produce between 300 megawatts (small) and 700 megawatts (medium) of power compared to at least 1,000 MW (electric) produced by standard size reactors.
The advantages of mini-reactors are lower initial investment costs, less complex design, and the fact that they only take four years to build rather than the decade required for standard installations. Mini Reactors can be built and shipped, making them a better option for remote areas. They are safer because they do not require manpower or electricity to stop. They produce less waste. They are cheaper to dismantle.
The second development is nuclear fusion. While in nuclear fission an atom is split, fusion combines atoms. When fusion occurs, the difference in mass between the nuclei and the newly formed heavier but lower mass atom is released as energy. It takes special machines (tokamaks) or lasers to generate the intense heat and powerful magnetic forces needed to produce energy so powerful that one liter of fusion fuel is equivalent to 55,000 barrels of oil in energy.
In addition to the production of energy without greenhouse gases, fusion has two other notable advantages. The first is that fusion eliminates the risk of nuclear fusion because, if disturbed, the process stops. The other is that no radioactive waste is produced. Fusion research is expensive, however, and the advances by which fusion reactors provide the world with affordable energy seem distant and may never happen.
It is also the best hope for the devastation that nuclear energy risks. Accidents that include Three Mile Island in the United States in 1979, Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union in 1986, and Fukushima are attributed to human error. A possible calamity occurred in March when Russian bombing sparked a fire at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine, which, with six reactors, is the largest in Europe. The incident highlighted the vulnerability of nuclear facilities to war, terrorism, suicidal rage or rogue states turning a nuclear plant into a military base, as Russia has now done with Zaporizhzhia. Many say aging nuclear facilities pose a threat. A risk associated with the Internet age is cybersecurity.
Even with all the risks, nuclear power is an established energy source that will gain traction in response to climate change, especially if further technological advances are made. Nuclear power might be most notable for how its adoption will vary from country to country, with communities judging their risk tolerance surrounding the most promising energy solution to mitigating global warming.
Of course, nuclear power is not the only solution to climate change. Leaps in renewable technology or its economics could undermine the need for nuclear. But the reverse could also apply. The shift to more nuclear power could take too long to contain the Earth’s temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius. Any nuclear construction spree carries risks and no doubt cost overruns. On the other hand, only three notable accidents in more than six decades constitute a fair safety record.
Energy security is what gives nuclear energy a new appeal. Expect more policymakers to push for nuclear. It’s just that the next nuclear accident could, Fukushima-style, set back the best option for mitigating climate change on all measures except safety.
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