Why nuclear power is the safest, cheapest and most efficient alternative energy and why it’s being rejected.
The 2019 HBO hit show – Chernobyl – could quite possibly be the worst piece of PR nuclear power has received since Fukushima. HBO’s Chernobyl conveys a real world historical narrative for entertainment as intended but also, knowingly or unknowingly packs a deep punch to the ribs of climate change. HBO’s damage to the brand image of nuclear power is a major setback to the case being made the world over that nuclear power is our best energy alternative to a sustained reliance on fossil fuels.
The disaster of Chernobyl is of course a fault of the Soviet regime and not, as public fear may suggest, that of the technology. Anything can be mismanaged to the point of disaster. Take deepwater horizon as an example where the oil industry got it wrong. The mismanagement of a dangerous process was causing the terminal detriment of the rich ecosystem. It was not the oil’s fault it was exposed to the waters of the gulf of Mexico, it was the handlers. Much is the same with the nuclear failure at Chernobyl, and also to a degree the power plant fail of Fukushima.
The scary danger of nuclear, and also the source of public scepticism, is when nuclear gets it wrong it reaps an eclipsing downside.
So – like everything – our attitude towards nuclear should be measured through cost benefit analysis. You would think that given the heightened awareness the public have of nuclear danger, that only backwards countries like Russia are crazy enough to build nuclear power plants. There is an exaggerated and widely held sentiment that once a nuclear power plant is built it begins it’s inevitable timeline to nuclear fallout.
The Reality Of Nuclear
Globally we have in operation approximately 450 nuclear power plants. These 450 produce 10% of the worlds electricity which renders nuclear a comprehensive victor in the fight for energy efficiency.
Of the numerous incidents caused by nuclear, there is really only two worth mention – since the consequence of which dealt in immediate death. These are the historical events of Chernobyl and Fukushima. As already highlighted, Chernobyl was the fault of an incompetent and corrupt Soviet regime and not that of the technology. Fukushima, on the other hand, was consequence of an enormously powerful earthquake and tsunami that disrupted the foundations of the facility. Admittedly, some fault must be levelled at the Japanese for not accurately assessing the risk of this plant’s location. 15,000 deaths have been attributed the Tohoku natural disaster which disrupted Fukushima. However, as of 2012, the United Nations confirmed that 0 of the 15,000 deaths were caused by radiation exposure. Therefore annulling nuclear guilt.
In equal measure, nuclear energy has the power to both decimate and give life to entire cities. Nuclear has an eclipsing downside, but if we can manage to price in nuclear’s potential downside contrasted against the price of nuclear’s absence you will find we are worse off should we continue down the anti nuclear path we trail. This is too say that we need nuclear. We need to be turning towards less environmentally degrading means of energy production and a continued inaction to do so is evidently only going to further worsen our environment’s grim future. The downside of nuclear is pronounced and terrible, but don’t forget globally we have 450 plants! and discounting numerous localised incidents, there are only two examples of the terrible downside nuclear offers. Nuclear’s upside of cheap, clean, scalable, efficient energy wholly consumes nuclear’s isolated downside.
So we need to rethink our off-green distaste for this powerful technology.
The Technology, How It Works
Nuclear energy comes from the splitting of uranium atoms which in turn produces heat which in turn boils water which in turn produces steam which in turn powers a turbine which in turn produces electricity. I do not understand further than that, however, what is important to understand is that this process produces NO carbon emissions and can be in operation 24 hours a day. Apart from the waste nuclear produces, nuclear is perfectly green energy.
Compared to other means of energy production nuclear produces very little waste. Of this little waste, it is simply stored. Simple as that, it is stored. There are multiple means by which the waste is being stored but the idea is that so little waste is produced that it is completely safe and sustainable to just rely on storage until we innovate to point where the waste can offer some value – which might not be so far into the future. For further information on the waste visit here.
Plutonium, The Stuff Of Weapons
Of the waste nuclear energy produces there is sprinkled randomly throughout a chemical called plutonium. This is the fuel of nuclear weapons, and clearly, something we are all better off without. I believe this to be on overinflated downside to nuclear, since having access to the fuel certainly does not give you access to the means. There are very few who have the knowledge necessary to bridge the gap between having plutonium and having a bomb, and without the know-how having plutonium is akin to having a car with no keys. Still dangerous and still worth consideration, but not as dire as one would have you believe.
There are three innovations in the pipeline of our lifetime which – if not over inflated – work to further propel the efficiency and necessity of nuclear energy production. These are in order of release date: small modular reactors, fast reactors, and the pursuit of fusion energy. You can dyor (do your own research) on these different innovations here. But the biggest takeaways from these future prospects are two fold – more efficient means of production and waste without plutonium. Both of which, further contribute the pro nuclear narrative.
A Conclusion Of Necessity
As I started with, allow us to consider nuclear through the cost benefit lens. Does the downside eclipse the upside? If we look at Chernobyl in isolation (as the majority does) and measure the danger of nuclear from there alone, then naturally the conclusion is to say that nuclear is not worth the risk, no matter what the upside is. However, as we have explored, Chernobyl is an outlier of outliers and also not the fault of nuclear but rather the handler.
When nuclear is measured in its whole. Taking into considering it’s efficiency in producing energy, it’s environmental cleanliness, it’s price and potential for the future and then weighed against the risk of nuclear fail drawing upon the Fukushima disaster and numerous less significant incidents then the outcome is clear. Nuclear is a net good. Carbon emission offsetting means of energy production have yet to have their environmental downside priced in. Pricing in environmental damage to fossil fuel energies as an economic adjustment is an inevitable reality of the coming years and will drastically shift the needle further to the right for the necessity of nuclear.
All this is well and good, and this piece is clearly biased towards the proliferation of nuclear worldwide. However, I must emphasise that nuclear does still pose the threat of terrible downside. Chernobyl was the fault of the soviet’s but it was still nuclear radiation that killed all those people. Nuclear is perhaps the riskiest source of energy production we have access too. So extreme care and caution must be dealt across the board as we move further and further towards the nuclear inevitability. And unfortunately, that means the necessity of bureaucratic regulation and expensive cautionary systems which will surely stifle and overprice nuclear proliferation, but ultimately be a worthwhile cost.
So appreciate HBO’s Chernobyl for it’s entertainment and don’t allow yourself to be misled into fear of nuclear. For as it stands, along with a carbon tax this means of energy production is our best chance at combatting climate change.